Jake, a composite character, sprang forth from various mercenaries—some former assassins--that I interviewed as a journalist. "Memoirs of a Hit Man," a novel by Deborah Voorhees, delves into the transformation of one man’s tattered soul. Jake never thought he’d hire a hit man; after all he’s among the best, but his last hit can only be done by his estranged son, a Father in the Catholic Church. Jake’s only hope is to offer him the one thing Father Michael wants—information about how his mother died.
Growing up on an Arizona ranch, Jake knew since the age of four he would take over his father’s cattle empire. Becoming an assassin was far from his consciousness, but a series of tragic events drove him more and more into emotional isolation and down a path he never fathomed. Polio and an iron lung stole him away from his family at age 8. Three years after his recovery, fear of him giving the deadly disease to his siblings kept his parents from allowing him to come home. The Hopi Indians were among the few clans willing to take in “throw-away” children. For three years he lived among the Indians, part outsider, part insider. Most of his time, he spent in seclusion hunting on the reservation and living in a mud hut separated from the rest of the clan. In his early twenties he married the love of his life Rachel and attempted to take over the family ranch. When their first son turned six, his wife was murdered. Jake became more emotionally isolated; he abandoned his son with his Aunt and signed up with the CIA for the secret war in Laos. Gaining control of the Ho Chi Minh trial was the only way for the U.S. to block communist Vietnam’s aggression from the South. Jake was just what the military wanted: a loner and sharpshooter with nothing to lose. His photographic memory perfected his qualifications. Assassins had to memorize all data so documents could be destroyed. This story is about Jake’s fight with evil, the son he left behind, and the fallout of those actions.
Excerpt from the novel:
"Only the dead have seen the end to war," Plato
"Many have asked why I would write a memoir in third person. The answer is both simple and complex. The man I write about has become so foreign to me that I only know of him. The bones, tendons and muscles that stood him erect, the blood that flowed through his veins and capillaries can no longer be of my flesh. His mind has been so completely altered that the grooves in the brain have been erased and redrawn into who I am today. As surely as if an exorcism had been carried out, his tainted soul had been driven from this sagging, ancient vessel. So you see the hit man can no longer be an I, it has to be a he. Perhaps it's a transformation of the soul or just an old man's longings to have a new past, to be reborn in infant flesh. But the reason goes beyond even this. A life nurtures and destroys many in its direct and indirect path. Consequently, a human can't be accurately judged from his single point of view. A past is not only a collection of one’s memories, but the memories it leaves in others. Destruction, the life a hit man chooses, reaches its tentacles beyond him and even beyond those he kills. It's a chain reaction or more like the fallout of a bomb. No single target can be destroyed without other casualties. So indulge me on our journey into Jake's mind and life, and those left in his wake."
Jake hadn't killed anyone in 24 years. Taking a life, animal or human, never bothered Jake--that is except for his last. After that final hit, all the destruction and pain he'd caused erupted with the force of Mount Vesuvius when it destroyed Pompeii. For the first time, he feared for his immortal soul. Afterwards, he put away his scope and rifle and never made another hit.
When Jake was drafted in the military his coldness unnerved even veteran soldiers. He could leave to go pee, slice a man's throat and come back as if nothing had happened. There was a time when he reasoned that anyone would be blessed if he was the hired gun. After all, the target was going to die anyway. It might as well be by someone who'd do the job efficiently. To him a target was of no more significance than a squashed bug on a sidewalk. Long ago, he switched off his emotions and pain as easily as one might turn off a water faucet or shut a door that was never to be walked through again; his refusal to feel kept him alive.
His father taught him the ethics of a hunter, a code of honor he lived by with the same passion a man of God lives by the commandments. The only difference was instead of 10 commandments he had four: Never pull the trigger unless you have a clear shot. Only shoot if you can take the target down in one shot. Never torment or frighten the mark. Don't let the victim know you're there until the moment of impact. Somehow these rules made him feel virtuous. All men, even Jake, must believe in their innate goodness.
Room 309 at St. Paul's Nursing Home was far from his boy-hood ranch in Arizona, the Indian reservation where he spent half his childhood, and from his life as a hit man. Here, Jake's arm, bruised from repeated pricks of the needle, had an IV attached. His hands gnarled from arthritis, skin thin and as translucent as tissue paper, and as withered as Eos’ Tithonus living long after the “goal of ordinance.” *
His mind was strong, alert. Only his body betrayed him. Two heart attacks and a stroke left the 72-year-old Jake unable to care for himself. In his mind's eye, he was still a youthful man, despite his body’s protest. Each time he saw his reflection, he was startled at the face peering back. It seemed as though someone had stolen his eyes and soul and damned them in wrinkled flesh. Even his bone structure looked different. The sagging skin made his once square jaw appear soft and round. His once solid neck had grown so thin and crinkled that it resembled a vulture's neck rather than a human's. A thin, milky wash dulled the glint in his steel-gray blue eyes, the same glint that once wowed the ladies. Time had become his most ferocious enemy; the first enemy he was helpless to execute.
Surprisingly, Jake's hearing was still keen after all these years. In the distance, Jake could hear footsteps coming down the nursing-home hall, which reeked of urine and antiseptic cleaner.
“He'll be here soon,” Jake thought.
Across the hall, Jake could hear Mr. Lewis moan like a feline in heat. The old man called out when his pain medication wore off. The nurses were slow getting to him. They refused to give him his meds until the allotted time. Jake couldn't understand why they cared if he became a morphine addict at 92. The nurses labored like computerized robots, unable to see beyond the programmed rules to adequately care for the human. Sometimes, Jake considered taking Mr. Lewis out, but Jake's body wouldn't allow it.
Jake heard the footsteps slow. They were now outside his door. When he heard the faint click of the door knob, instinct told him to reach for his gun, but once again his body failed to reply, besides his gun was no longer beneath his pillow. Since he was a teenager, he'd always kept the Colt .45 his father gave him with him. Sleep wouldn't come until he'd wrap his hand around the butt of the gun. He held onto it the way some children coddle a blanket.
When the man first walked in the room, Jake couldn't make out his features. The figure seemed to be nothing more than a shadow, ghostlike. The man stepped closer and moved into the light. Jake could see his black cossack and thin white collar.
“A priest.” Jake smiled with amusement as he pushed the button on his morphine drip. “Nice touch. I suppose you want me to say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. Then should I shake and sob? Become Born Again? Oh, no wait. That's the Baptist thing. Catholics sin on Saturday and get forgiveness on Sunday.”
“Your place is waiting,” said the Father in a monotone voice, as he settled into the stiff-back chair next to the bed.
“What if I told you I don't believe in forgiveness?”
“You have much to fear.”
The Priest sat in the dark and lit a cigarette, his face surprisingly youthful for a man in his thirties. The baby fat on his cheeks made him appear childlike. Shakespeare would have derogatorily called him a lackbeard because he had no stubble. A male wasn't considered a man in the 16th century or in Jake's world until he could grow a beard.
“Are you old enough to have sinned?” Jake asked, as he tried to lift his head off the pillow. Once again, his body failed him.
“My sin is yet to come. But it's not my sins we're here to talk about.”
“How can you help sinners, unless you have sinned yourself?”
“I don't need to kill to know it's wrong.”
“You believe you're superior than me.”
“Than I,” said the Priest, as he flicked his ashes in an empty water glass sitting on the table beside Jake's bed.
“I didn't think you'd actually come.”
“I didn't either.”
“Would you help me get a drink?” asked Jake, as he once again attempted to lift himself; failing, Jake flipped a switch on his metal side rail, which elevated his head. The priest lifted the glass to Jake's lips, which shook as he sipped the liquid congealed to the consistency of honey. The aides began putting thickener in his water once his ability to swallow deteriorated. Too often the fluids seeped into his lungs instead of his stomach. The thickener helped his control.
“So was it a calling?” asked Jake, as he pursed his lips, objecting to the water's consistency.
“Becoming a priest?,” he asked rhetorically, as he set the glass down and wiped Jake's lips with a wadded napkin tossed on a tray, which held the remains of a half-eaten dinner. “Perhaps a calling or more likely a damnation.”
“You have more depth than I had imagined.”
“I suppose being a hit man gives you depth,” the priest fired back.
“No, a vast emptiness, like a black hole where not even a spirit can dwell.”
Jake paused, reflecting on a time he had tried to erase, but like Lady Macbeth, the blood still lingered on his hands. When he began again, he spoke more to himself than his audience of one. “In film, a hit man always has a witty quip, but in life, by the time you smart off you're dead. A hit man is more like a mountain lion, a stealth killer, who strikes in silence. The only warning is the sound of the shot a millisecond before impact. A lion doesn't feel anything for its kill, just the pangs of hunger disappearing.”
“Didn't you feel anything when you killed?”
The room grew quiet and neither spoke for an uncomfortably long time. Both disappeared into their minds. The priest's mind went to thoughts of escape--Jake was the last man he wanted to see. Jake disappeared into his past. When Jake finally spoke, his words snaked and intertwined with the air as if speaking more to himself, to his past, to the spirits than to the Father.
“When I was sent away to the children's hospital at age 7, I built an imaginary castle around myself, stone by stone and dug a deep mote one shovelful at a time. The mote I filled with water and alligators. Only a few humans have managed to seep inside my walls. Those I've feared the most because they had the power to hurt me.”
Irritated, the Priest interrupted, “Trials are the blood of life. They don't give us a right to kill with impunity.”
Jake continued on as if the Priest had said nothing.
“My Grandmother was the only person inside whom I didn't fear.”
At one time, Jake would have never admitted to his frailties but time had taken away his false pride and left him with only the truth. He spoke not with sadness or regret but merely recited facts. At this point in his life, the only thing he knew for certain was that he would live until he died. Everything else seemed to be a mystery, a huge contrast from his reckless youth when he was certain he understood all.
The Priest wanted to scream at Jake to shut up. The church had taught him that all men could seek absolution, but in his heart he didn't believe in forgiveness for men such as Jake. Yet, he sat idly by and listened to the old man, partially in disgust and partially as a voyeur unable to avert his eyes from some wretched scene. It was as if his soul and mind were at odds.
Jake went on to tell the Father that during the 9 months he spent in an iron lung and the 2 ½ years of rehabilitation, he only saw his mother and father twice, both times at a distance. They would stand at the edge of the hospital lawn and wave from the curb. They had a daughter and a son they feared might catch polio. At that time, no one knew how the polio virus was spread. People feared that this virus, which so viciously attacked the spinal cord, was airborne. Polio was the leprosy of the 1950s. Schools, swimming pools and movie houses were closed during epidemics.
Only Jake's Grandmother visited him regularly. She'd declared in her husky voice, “Something's got to kill me one day. Hell, I'm not afraid of getting polio.” She had a way of sounding as though she was daring death to take her. Jake was certain that the God of death would be too fearful to challenge this tough woman. Even In her 80s, she always said she would live as long as she could chop her own wood.
Young Jake survived the isolation of the iron lung by creating an imaginary world where he lived among sorcerers, knights, kings and queens. The iron lung was suffocating. The mind had to live someplace other than the body or go mad. The large, metal respirator covered everything but his head. His body could move in his imaginary world. There he was as strong and stout as any knight in the kingdom; Jake could wield a sword with ferocious force, slay an enemy in one slice and run with the speed of a horse.
It was a place where legs weren't crippled and shriveled up with atrophy; joints didn't freeze up and refuse to move. Muscles didn't ache, loneliness wasn't his constant companion, and fear of life-long deformities didn't invade his thoughts. Invasions came in the form of enemy armies that were easily slain. Beautiful maidens tossed flowers at his feet in appreciation for his heroic feats, and men drank heartily in honor of his bravery.
The nurses at the children's hospital considered him to be a miracle, filled with a boundlessly positive attitude. They didn't know it was because he no longer could feel pain. Even physical pain was minimal. When other children cried out in agony, Jake did not. His mind somehow shut out the constant pain in his legs and back.
“After I was released from the hospital, I still couldn't go home. My parents couldn't risk the well-being of my siblings. They didn't know the virus had long been eradicated from my system. Monasteries, the Amish and various Indian tribes were often the only people who would take in children with these so-called deadly communicable diseases. Wealthy parents could afford to send their children to Paraguay or Mexico. My parents had little money. The Hopi tribe was their only hope. After several discussions with tribal elders, my parents arranged for me to live on the Hopi reservation at the age of 11. No one else would take me in.”
Even in his later years, Jake considered himself to be half white man and half Indian, though he didn't have a drop of Indian blood. He felt caught between the two worlds, not fully belonging to either. His pale face, blond hair and blue eyes didn't remotely resemble the Indians he lived among. The life his ancestors lived in Spain had nothing to do with him. His siblings and he were fifth-generation Americans. Raised Catholic, Jake attended periodic Sunday masses until he was too ancient to drive. Rituals such as crossing himself with the holy water gave him a sense of balance, order. Yet, he felt little connection to the priests and nuns and even less connection with the church's ideology.
“When I pray, I pray to the Hopi gods and the Christian God. I've lived in both worlds and can't shake either,” continued Jake.
The Priest said nothing, just listened.
“Because I was just a boy when I went to live with the Hopi tribe, the Indians didn't fear me. I was allowed into rituals that no white man had witnessed. Only men were allowed in the kivas, which were underground ceremonial sites. Once boys reach puberty they are inducted into the kivas. I received an invitation, although, I wasn't allowed to stay as long as the Indian boys.”
In the kivas, Jake learned of the Kachinas, which were ancestral spirits that lived at the summit of the ancient volcanic San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. They were used as intermediaries to the gods. He learned that the Hopis had three types of Kachinas as Christians had the Holy Trinity. For the Hopis, they had the supernatural gods; the carved religious icons, which were sacred tools used to teach children about the Hopi religion; and the humans who personified the gods during spiritual dances and ceremonies. The Hopis believed that once men wore the masks and clothing of the Kachinas, they became the gods. This all felt so familiar to Jake. As a Catholic, he knew the wine and bread blessed during mass became the blood and body of Christ, not just a representation; and Jake knew that when the Pope spoke in ex cathedra he spoke not as himself but as God. And like Catholic priests and nuns, the Kachina carvers and those who became the Kachinas during tribal ceremonies had to have years of religious study. And as with priests, only men could represent the Kachinas, even though many of the spiritual beings were female. The Kachina spirits similarity to Catholic saints helped Jake bond quickly with the Indians and their religion.
When Jake felt sick, he prayed to Skin Walker, who was known for her healing powers. The spirit crawled into the bed of the ill and healed with her touch. As a child, Jake feared the Orge as all Hopi children. When children had been particularly naughty, a man would wear the Orge's mask and go from child to child to warn them to help the tribe cultivate the needed food supply. The Orge would grab the children's feet and threaten to eat them. Parents would beg the Orge to spare the children because they had learned their lessons.
Jake most revered the Left-handed Kachina. Being left-handed, Jake saw himself in this spiritual entity. This warrior was the most feared because enemies expected the blows to come from the dominate right hand. A south-paw had the element of surprise.
Jake had always kept a Left-handed Kachina in his office, which was filled with Hopi religious icons. Many of his Kachinas, carved from cottonwood root, had eagle feathers, which were illegal for a white man to own. The Hopi didn't care. Jake was special to the tribe, an honorary member. Hopi priests, who had blessed each doll, had given Jake the various icons over the years.
Jake smiled as he told the priest about how during the female-spiritual ceremonies, the squaw dances, he'd hide in the mountains for fear that one would pick him to be her mate.
“While I find your troubled life fascinating, I don't see that it's necessary for us to discuss, considering why you've called me here,” interrupted the Priest, who had a slight irritation to his voice.
“No, I suppose you're right, but you're still my son.”
“Only by blood,” fired back the Priest, recoiling against the words as if Jake had shot him in the back.
Anger welled up in the Priest, and at that moment he knew he too had the capacity to take a life. So revolted with himself and Jake, the Priest stormed out of the room.
Jake called after him, “Wait.”
But Jake's words fell on deaf ears; Father Michael bounded down the nursing home's back stairway and ran out into the night. For the first time, the Priest grasped what was meant by “the sins of the father will be passed down...” The idea that any part of him, no matter how small, could be remotely like the man he refused to call father made him feel sick. Jake wanted to take his words back; he knew he'd gone too far. Somehow he had to get Father Michael back. He had a son's duty to perform. After all, Jake had fulfilled his duty to his father; Michael must do the same. There was only one way to get him back. Jake still had something that Father Michael wanted.
Father Michael had woken up early to finish preparing his sermon for the morning's mass. A breeze blew through the courtyard, where he stretched out on a bench to scrawl notes. A few stars were still in the sky as dawn approached. Looking up from his notepad, he surveyed the courtyard, which the church wrapped around. It was bare except for a few grassy clumps, smatterings of cactus, sagebrush, a small juniper and two Ponderosa pines.
After writing his final notes, he slipped on his black jacket and white collar and rang the church bells, the same bells that Spanish monks had brought more than three hundred years ago from a Mexican monastery. The church was so small Father Michael handled most tasks. That was fine with him. A large congregation, with nameless faces, never appealed to him. This quaint mission-style church on a sparse swathe of red clay between Taos and Red River, New Mexico suited him perfectly.
Not much had changed since the native Indians and Spaniards built the mud walls. The structure was still no bigger than at its inception. Most parishioners had to duck to enter into the house of worship, since its 17th-century mesquite front doors were shaved and carved to an opening only slightly higher than five feet.
After conducting morning mass, Father Michael began taking confessions as usual. In fact, the day was just like most days, but that changed rapidly when an unexpected visitor walked into the parish. At first, the Father only heard footsteps clicking across the wide-planked wood floors. The visitor walked with the same double click that Father Michael walked with. Tired after several hours of confessions, the priest prayed this wasn't a lost soul searching for absolution. Hunger pains were growing stronger and so was the light feeling in his head. Confessions had been the typical transgressions, such as “I took the Lord's name in vain,” “I was disrespectful to my parents” and “I had an affair with my boss' husband.”
Father Michael knew all the predilections of the members of his congregation. Although a partition divided him and those in the confessional, he was intimately familiar with their voices. Besides, parishioners often gave themselves away by mentioning a favorite aunt or some other revealing tidbit. He knew who drank to excess, who was sleeping with whom, who secretly despised whom and who participated in unsavory activities such as shoplifting or voyeurism. He couldn't bear another contrite avowal, and it was a good two hours past his lunch hour.
The priest looked up at the late arrival and felt his legs sway. He knew him immediately. The eyes were the same as his long-departed Emma; he had the same dark features and harsh angles that came from the men on her side of the family. The awkward boy, Father Michael once knew, no longer existed. A man's sinewy body had replaced the freckled-faced, scrawny boy. Stubble had taken the place of pimples. A deep voice spoke through the same lips where a high-pitch once came from. The pants were no longer ripped from scuffling with the neighborhood boys, and he smelled of cologne rather than sour day-old sweat, horse and grime.
Father Michael never intended to become a dad. From the time he was age eight, he could never imagine a life outside the church. The towering ceilings, the crucifixes above the altar, the pews with red-velvet kneeling banisters, and the stained-glass interpretations of the resurrection felt more like home than any Tudor or Colonial-style home ever could. Years ago, shortly after Father Michael's mother was murdered, he was placed in a Catholic orphanage. He was only five. For years, he didn't know what had become of his father. Michael so wanted a father, he latched onto the priests and their teachings with the fervor and conviction of the converted. Soon becoming a priest was all he wanted--that is until Emma. The moment he saw her walk out of the confessional was the first time he'd felt a kinship outside the church. Immediately, he was drawn to Emma's opal-colored skin, heart-shaped face and doe eyes. She became the object of his obsession.
Emma was more than he ever dreamed a woman could be. She made him feel safe and loved. They married only a few weeks after they met, just as soon as they both turned 18. Their birthdays were only days apart. Michael didn't allow her out of the house without him. Jealousy became his albatross. If her eyes met another man's eyes and her lips smiled slightly, it would throw him into a three-day rage. He never raised his hand against her, but he'd break things and punch walls. At times of remorse, he'd lament that he felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When his 'evil' side surfaced, he would have heinous thoughts that sickened him, thoughts he dared not tell anyone. So he'd sleep, fearful to go out into the world, fearful that he'd lose control if someone pushed him.
While Emma and Michael's bad moments were intense, there were far more passionately wonderful times, when both were giddy with happiness. Sex was intense and frequent. Michael came to her often. Emma never turned him away from her soft private place where only he could enter, even when she wasn't in good spirits. Somehow it seemed cruel when he looked so vulnerable in his erectness, so naked in his urgency. Still Michael couldn't abide her seducing him. Somehow, he felt it made her dirty, like the aggressive streetwalkers other boys went to for relief. So she waited and learned patience. He was her first and only and she his. She became pregnant right away and gave birth to their son Matthew. Emma was a homebody, so she rarely minded the restrictions her husband put on her. In fact, they made her feel wanted and loved.
When Emma died of cancer, the joy in Michael withered. He returned to the only other place he felt peace, the church. The priesthood was a place where he could hide from his anger: anger at the God who took her away, anger at the doctor who couldn't save her, anger at the disease that chose his beloved, anger at himself for not being able to rescue her… And rage at the harsh sentence he was dealt for his human frailties that he so hated but couldn't escape.
Michael left all that he owned: the house, the car, his clothes, furniture and animals behind. Even their 13-year-old son Matthew was sent to live with Michael's Aunt Jessie. The lie was that Matthew needed a mother figure. The truth, Michael wouldn't admit to himself, was that his son's eyes were impossible to look into without being swallowed up by the pain of losing his Emma.
In the last few years Emma lived, the three resided in a cozy pueblo-style hacienda nestled on 13-wooded acres next to a national park just outside Taos, New Mexico. From their front porch, which wrapped around both sides of the house, they could see the mountains. On cool mornings, Emma would take one of the horses and ride up into the mountains to be alone. This was the only time Michael didn't mind Emma being away from him. He sensed the serenity the horses brought her.
One March morning, Michael went out to feed their four horses. On the ground, he tossed flakes of alfalfa. Their buckets he filled with pellets, oats and slices of carrots and apples and then scratched each one on their necks and chests. Each morning, when the horses heard Michael get up, they'd whinny in low guttural tones outside the bedroom window. On mild nights, when the bedroom window was left open, the four-year-old black-and-white paint, a bay, a red sorrel and a palomino would poke their heads inside the bedroom and if their pawing and vocal tones didn't wake them, sometimes Doc, Emma's favorite horse, would snatch the sheets to coax them out of bed. When the lightning storms came, Doc would whinny and paw at the backdoor. Terrified of storms he’d beg to come in. The first time Michael opened the door to calm him, Doc charged past him and lay on the floor shivering. Ever since then it became a ritual. He’d stay inside until the storm passed.
On this particular morning, an icy glaze was on everything. The water in the horse's trough had frozen. Using an ax with a splintered wooden handle, Michael broke up the ice, which resembled floating shards of glass. The horses pushed at each other to try to sip the cold liquid. Michael expected to have four horses nosing their way to the water, instead he only counted three. Looking up, he searched the pasture for Doc, the black-and-white paint. Michael glanced toward the house and saw Doc saunter up to the water faucet attached to the back of the house next to the spiny cholla cacti. The horse placed his lips over the faucet and turned it until the water ran freely. After the industrious horse drank his fill, he locked his lips around the faucet and turned it off.
Michael laughed from deep in his belly. Who'd ever heard of a horse turning a faucet on, let alone off? He ran into the house to share this astonishing tidbit with Emma, who had been bedridden for months because of cancer's ravaging ways. Michael called out to her as he hurried down the hall. Her door was merely pulled to so he was able to open it without turning the door knob. The room was still dark because the drapes were pulled closed.
Michael and she had always shared the same bed until this last month. Michael had moved Emma into a separate room where he set up a hospital bed that could raise and lower her feet and head. Here, she slept more soundly without his coughing or snoring or restlessly tossing about. The room Michael kept meticulously neat, each ornament dusted and in its proper place, and the paintings on the walls were perfectly straight. Even the bed almost looked made up though Emma was still occupying it: the sheets tucked in on all sides, the comforter folded nearly across her legs, and pillows propped up her head.
When he first stepped inside, Michael thought she was asleep, but once he pulled the curtains open to let the sun in, he saw her pale lifeless face, her upturned hand. If it wasn’t for the blue around her eyes and lips and the wetness of urine between her legs, she would have appeared to be napping.
Years later, the son he’d left behind stood in front of him. Michael felt as though he was peering through a forgotten window, where he could see into someone else’s past life. Emma and Michael’s son had always been a good student, excelling in every subject he tackled. The year his mother died his grades slipped, but he soon recovered and began to master his studies again. Books and learning allowed him solace from the sorrow of losing his parents. Getting lost in literature of Faulkner and Woolf, the history of the War Between the States, the study of periodic tables, or compound fractures were his escapes. His stellar grades earned him a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where he hoped to study law. Matthew hated the idea of leaving his beloved New Mexico, but he knew he needed a better education than a small-town junior college could offer him. All this Father Michael knew because he had kept in close contact with his Aunt Jessie, making sure Matthew was okay.
Aunt Jessie hadn’t been able to have children and had longed to raise a son or a daughter of her own. When the chance came to take her favorite nephew in, she took it without hesitation. The only condition was she’d have to promise to never tell the boy where his father had gone. The plump woman with soft-blond curls around her cherub face hesitantly agreed.
Father Michael, standing across from his son, had feared this moment for years. How could he ever justify abandoning his son? Father Michael was overcome with emotion: torn between the desire to hold his son and the desire to flee. Even if he could talk himself into running, his feet could no more move than if they had been made of steel and concrete. As if involuntarily, Father Michael reached out to embrace the boy, who was now a man, when Matthew spoke first. Mathew was too preoccupied to notice the emotions that had been altering Father Michael’s expressions.
“Are confessions over with Father?” he asked as he adjusted his red tie and glanced down at his cell phone to check the time.
So taken back by the presence of his son, Father Michael didn’t answer. Instead he just stared as his feelings washed over his numbness, forcing an uncomfortable tingling sensation similar to how a leg feels after the circulation has been cut off. He felt so many things at once; he couldn’t isolate where one began and another ended: The regret of lost time, pain of his wife’s death, the awe of the man standing in front of him. Surreal was the best way to explain it.
Searching his son’s eyes, which were preoccupied with his phone, he saw no sign of recognition. Michael thought his son had come in search of him but quickly realized this was a chance meeting. The Father still didn’t speak. Confused by the Priest’s silence, Matthew looked at the man more closely. The awareness of whom he was speaking to slowly grabbed hold of Matthew. At first, he said nothing then murmured, “Father?”
Matthew had fantasized about this moment many times. In but a few seconds, he felt the boy in him cry out, “Dad,” and the man in him strike out. The boy had so many questions, but the man’s lips didn’t speak.
Matthew remembered all too well that dreadful morning. His father never spoke, not a kind word or caress for the crying boy, only silence. Part of him wanted revenge. The power was in his hands to walk away from the man who now wanted to embrace him. When his father had taken him to his aunt’s house in Albuquerque, his father had promised to return. Michael knew it was a lie, but he just couldn’t walk away from Matthew’s eyes without offering momentary comfort. He didn’t think it through enough to understand the damage that the tender lie would cause; he just grasped for a quick fix.
For weeks the boy kept watch at his aunt’s front bay window as vigilantly as a soldier guarding a fort against enemy troops. The freckled-faced child refused to unpack or sleep in his newly decorated room. Somehow, he feared if he got too comfortable, his father wouldn’t return. Late in the spring, Matthew gave up his post and put his things away. His Great Aunt Jessie's home was strange to him. Matthew had grown up with open land, trees, hills, mountains, rivers, springs and wild animals around him. The sky was a deep blue, the air crisp as summer cucumbers. Here the entire city belched smoke, fumes and exhaust, poisoning all that breathed it. Stars didn't cover the sky. The city lights blotted out all but the brightest stars, and rows and rows of houses, rows and rows of city blocks, patches and patches of apartments and businesses crowded him, pinned him in until he doubted he'd ever feel free again. To him the city was surreal, as if a Monopoly game had somehow sprung to life, slaying the pastures, foliage, streams, wildlife, rolling hills and wide-open land he craved. Still, he was grateful to his Aunt Jessie, who took him in, fed him, clothed him and was kind to him. She gave him everything she could but the two things he wanted most, his father and mother.
Father Michael watched as Matthew's eyes turned to recognition then to confusion, then to pain and finally to anger. Matthew slipped his cell phone into his jacket pocket and turned away.
Father Michael grieved as Matthew hurried out the church doors. His son's heels doubled clicked as he went. Regret washed over the priest like Noah's great flood but still he did nothing.
Jake never thought he'd hire an assassin. After all, there was no job he couldn't handle, or so he believed in his blind youth. Still, he had one last hit that must be done. The assassin had to be someone close to him. Jake had the necessary skill to kill efficiently, but he was encased in a wasted, shriveled vessel that laid inert in a nursing-home bed. Even if his atrophied muscles could suddenly be infused with enough vigor and dexterity that he could lift himself out of his prison, his mind couldn't bear the inevitable recoil, not even for this last kill. His soul had stolen his blissful numbness and no longer tolerated his self-appointed role as the Grim Reaper.
A nurse walked in and adjusted a valve on Jake's IV; neither spoke, only eyed each other with distrust. The nurse tended to her duties and left, and Jake stared out the window. Below two children played kickball as a group of nursing-home “inmates,” as Jake called them, watched on. Jake yearned to start over, at the boys' ages, and live his life again. He wanted to tell the kids to be wary of choices made. It can haunt you, he thought. You see, Jake doubted that God would forgive him for his blindness, as he couldn't forgive himself. Hell or perhaps purgatory was his next resting place, or perhaps no rest would come for those such as himself. Perhaps his damnation would be to feel the recoil over and over again, until the pain was unbearable.
Outside on the green lawn, the blond boy wearing blue, pin-striped overalls tripped over his red ball and scraped his knee. Crying and limping, the boy hurried to his mother for kisses. Jake wished things were that simple and that his mother was still alive to kiss his hurt away. But, in truth, a mother couldn't really kiss hurts away, he thought bitterly. No human escaped unscathed from pain nor blindness, unless death came before the first breath.
Jake had always argued that even the act of birth was violent: the woman screamed and tore, and the wailing infant had his head squeezed as if in a vise from its natural shape and was ripped from the only warm place he'd known. Jake believed that blindness to physical pain and world suffering drove women to procreate. Blindness seduced men into the military, into the CIA, into illusions of heroism. Jake could remember sitting on a bench in a mess hall, when a superior told Jake and a roomful of men, “Half you men will not come back.” All the men looked around, wondering who. None fathomed that he might be among the fallen, including Jake. Blindness had allowed Jake to kill, to rationalize killing, to even justify it. Blindness had kept him from the fear of living too long. A gun was supposed to take him out decades ago. He never imagined he'd find himself restricted to a bed, unable to the restroom or wipe himself, utterly incapable of sitting up on his own. The isolation was all too familiar to the iron lung, the children's hospital, where his acute state of blindness to pain started. Jake turned away from the window, away from the nurturing mother, away from the boys back at play. He longed for a touch of blindness that would take him to another time and place.
The drug that delivered his bliss was his beloved morphine, which he paid a doctor handsomely for. In the doctor's notes, it said the morphine drip was to control physical pain, but Jake used it to blur his emotional pain. He longed for that eloquent, morphine haze, which took him far from the sad, wretched nursing-home smells, food, aides and worst of all its isolation. Jake's only control was when that blissful haze would come. He couldn't control what he ate, when he ate, when he drank, what he drank, when his medicine came, when he was bathed, what he wore, when he was wheeled out of his room, when he could go outside, nothing. His only control was when the walls would sway, and he'd drift away on the warmth of the morphine. Only occasionally did the morphine betray him. At those moments, like today, the bliss came and went too soon and the fickle drug plunged him into a hell, a reality he was helpless to stop. Reliving the memories were in some ways worse than the actual experience because the mind's ability to shut down was gone, blessed numbness could no longer protect him. The love-hate bond he had for the drug was like the love-hate felt for an inconstant lover, who granted ecstasy and then without warning a violent slap.
In his stillness and quiet, Jake no longer disappeared into fantasy as he did when he lived in the iron lung. Rather, he disappeared into his past. Luring him were the places where he'd been happy and even joyous. Some of Jake's favorite times were when Father and Mother would tell the stories of his great-grandparents, who settled the family ranch just east of Flagstaff. It had been in the family since the 1800s. The cabin where their great-grandparents lived in was only about 10 miles from the current family home. His father always said he looked just like his grandfather Patrick Cauble did as a boy.
The elderly Jake knew the morphine was a roll of the dice. Jake rolled them once more and pressed the button on his pump. At first, the warm bliss took him to his favorite Christmas story.
While most children begged to hear The Night Before Christmas, little Jake and his siblings wanted to hear about their great-grandparents' first Christmas on the family's Arizona ranch. The telling of the story was a Christmas Eve tradition in the Cauble household.
This year was no different. Mother called for Jake, Sarah and Caleb to gather around the fireplace so Father could begin the tale. Father and Mother were as opposites as two people could be. Mary was fair, complicated and petite. She looked as breakable as a crystal vase. The dark-headed Daniel had leathery, sun-baked skin and rippling muscles. Mary's dresses were always meticulously ironed and starched, and her light brown hair was kept in a neat bun on top of her head. She looked out of place in the Arizona landscape. Daniel usually wore overalls and a wrinkled, white-cotton t-shirt, and his hair was always disheveled, except on Sunday mornings when he took the family to church.
Jake's siblings came from the same cloth as their father. The 14-year-old Caleb had red hair and freckles and already had stubble and the muscular body of a man. If they had had a football team at their small rural school, he could be the entire defensive line. The dark-eyed Sarah could out-shoot both her brothers and was handy with training the horses, but she was hardly a tomboy. Her figure was tall and slender yet still boyish at 16. Hours would go by as she primped for a school social or dance, especially if a cute boy might be in attendance. The 8-year-old Jake was still scrawny and as playful and as clumsy as a puppy. He was always tripping over his own feet, which were too big for his body.
Jake always loved Christmas more than anyone else in the family. Giving presents was his favorite part. He'd spend months making the perfect gift for each family member. His presents were always the first ones under the Christmas tree. Each year, he'd beg for everyone to open his first.
This year the family had set up the tree in the corner of the cabin and decorated it with strings of popcorn, red and green bows and hand-made ornaments. As Mary joined the family for the story she could recite herself, she set out a plate filled with sugar cookies in the shape of angels, Christmas trees, stars, snowmen, wreaths and Santa Claus. Each was painted with colored icings, mostly greens and reds. Round red hot candies made Santa's buttons, tiny multi-colored sugar candies were ornaments on the trees and small silver balls outlined the angels' halos and gowns. As soon as the plate reached the hearth, everyone grabbed for the cookies, making “yummy” noises in anticipation of that first bite.
Daniel began the story just as he always did. Jake lay on his belly, his fists under his chin and legs turned up at the knees and crossed in the back. Sarah and Caleb sat cross-legged, leaning anxiously in to hear the tale they'd heard so many times before. Jake loved how Father's voice was slow and deliberate and filled with anticipation.
“It was Christmas morning in 1875 when the Cauble children wiped the sleep out of their eyes and shuffled out of the single room that they shared,” said Daniel, as he scooted closer to the children. Sarah laid her head on his shoulder as she listened, and the boys faces perked up. “Their room had a low, slung ceiling and an iron, potbellied stove. They slept head, toe, head, toe on a single pallet stuffed with hay.
“Megan, the baby, seemed to have enough “nos” for a lifetime stored up in her two years. Everything good and bad received the same response: a big, loud “No!” Patrick, the tow-headed three-year-old, came into the world with a smile and a willingness to accept any lap offered to him,” interjecting, Daniel said, “Patrick was my father and your grandfather. You children never got to meet him, but he looked just like Jake as a boy.”
Caleb and Sarah looked at Jake admiring his features and imagining that he was their grandfather. Jake lifted his head, just a bit prouder. Then their father continued with the story: “Joshua, the eight-year-old, was just experimenting with his independence. He still wanted Mother’s hugs and kisses but fussed plenty when she gave them. The nine-year-old Jonathan could always be found with his nose in a book about knights and sorcerers.
“On this particular morning the children ran out to the kitchen to gather around the stove to get warm, but no one had kept the fire going and icicles had formed on the inside of the windows. Every morning their mother got up before them and would start the fire and cook the morning’s oatmeal. But this morning was special. It was Christmas! This morning there would be fresh eggs from the hen house, ham from the Christmas pig, warm milk from Clara the Cow, and hot biscuits and strawberry jam that their mother made. But things were different this Christmas morning. Things weren't as fine and festive as years before. The kitchen was still cold and dark. Mother hadn't started the fire or lit the lanterns. No biscuits were cooking in the oven. There was no sign of the Christmas goose that was sure to be the family's dinner.
“The four pulled back the curtain to their parent’s room. Mother wasn't putting on her slippers. Father wasn't clipping his red whiskers. The bed had been slept in but no one was there now.
“All the children turned and looked at each other in total surprise. Patrick cried out, “Someone has stolen Christmas.”
“Megan began to cry, Patrick joined in. Joshua and Jonathan felt the lumps gather in the throats but fought them back. Jonathan and Joshua chimed in almost at the same time, “They're probably in the barn.”
“Sure,” Joshua continued, “They probably got up early to do our chores as a Christmas surprise.”
“They wrapped scarves around their necks and slipped on their coats that their mother had made them. Patrick's and Megan’s jackets were made of beaver. Joshua's and Jonathan's coats were deer hide with collars made from the first rabbits the boys skinned. They squeezed out the front door all at once and ran to the barn. Jonathan swung open the barn door. Patrick yelled out, “Is Christmas in here?”
The old sorrel mare, named Auntie, was still in her stall, but no one had given her any hay. Clara the Cow’s udders were still swollen with milk. The eggs were still in the hen’s nests, and Mother and Father were nowhere to be found. The family's wagon and a 10-year-old chestnut horse that Megan named Giddy-up were gone. The children quickly milked the cow and gathered the eggs, hoping Mother and Father would return soon. When the chores were complete their parents still had not returned. Jonathan pulled the mare out of the barn. She had a long back big enough for the four children. The family didn't have a bridle or saddle for her, so Jonathan made a halter with two reins out of a rope for her. He led Auntie to the fence and used the wooden slats to climb on her back. Joshua then handed Megan up to Jonathan. Patrick took a seat behind Jonathan and Joshua got up last. Jonathan took hold of the reins and gave her a gentle prodding with the inside of his legs.
By the time the children got to Flagstaff it was just after 2 p.m. The wet, dirty roads were streaked with prints made from wagon and carriage wheels. The Cauble children could smell the Christmas feasts being prepared inside the homes. They walked through the market, which was filled with meats: deer, buffalo, bear, duck, chicken, grouse, partridge, elk, pig, beefsteaks, roast and even fish and oysters.
The children peered in the window of Douglas, Whitney & Company and saw homemade candies. Their stomachs ached. The day-old biscuits they had packed in their pockets were long gone.
Frustrated, cold, and afraid the four Cauble children sat on a step just across the street from the Market Drug Store. Suddenly, the children looked up. A crowd had gathered outside the drug store. The people were laughing, chatting, and pointing to a window above the store, where a family from Germany lived. Inside the window stood a tree decorated with candles, tinsel, and homemade cookies in the shape of stars, ships and boots; a sight the children had never seen. The crowd became so excited, all began to sing Christmas carols. The Cauble children joined in. To accompany the carolers in Silent Night and Away in a Manger, a woman came out of her home carrying her violin and four men pulled a piano and pianist out of the saloon.
Patrick looked up to Jonathan and Joshua, “We found Christmas.” Pausing slightly he added, “But l miss Mother and Father.”
“Somehow, l just know they'll be home when we get there,” said Jonathan with a smile.
And he was right. As Auntie sauntered up, the kids saw smoke billowing up from the chimney. Sliding down one-at-a-time, Jonathan and Joshua helped the two little kids down, and they all dashed into the house. The aroma of the Christmas goose greeted them as did Mother and Father, who knelt on the floor to hug their children. Everyone talked at once.
Through all the chatter Patrick yelled the loudest, “Mother, Father someone stole Christmas but then we found it.”
Giggling little Jake’s voice burst into the middle of his Father’s story and began telling the end with perfect recollection: “After the kids told their parents about discovering the first Christmas tree, our great grandmother spun the tale of Christmas, which Jonathan and Joshua had heard so many times before. They heard how a baby named Jesus was born in a manger and how a star in East had led three wise men to him. They learned how the child brought the message of love, sharing, and hope. And they all knew this had been the best Christmas ever.”
Turning to his mother, Jake prodded her to take it from there: “Now mother tell us the story of Jesus just like our great-grandmother used to tell her children.”
All three kids draped over each other—a mass of tangled arms and legs--in anticipation for the next family ritual.
“I don’t know Jake, maybe it’s time you told the story,” said his mother with a proud smile.
“No. I like to hear you tell it best.”
After Mother finished the tale, Jake clapped his hands and Sarah and Caleb joined in. Father jumped up and with a sly smile ordered the children to get into bed. All three balked and ran for the front door as their father knew they would. Always after story time, Daniel would take the children outside to listen for the sleigh bells and to watch the sky for Santa's sleigh. Moments after Father and the children hustled outside; Mother slipped out the back door and made her way into the woods. Jake listened intently as did Sarah and Caleb. It was several minutes before anyone heard a jingle. Finally, Jake screamed out, “I hear them, I hear them.” Father and Sarah and Caleb strained to hear the faint bells, which became louder and louder. The children didn't know that back up in the woods, their mother had Christmas bells in her pocket. She rang them several times until the children giggled with pure joy. Jake's laughter was the loudest.
Father gathered up the children and told them to hurry off to bed so Santa would come. Jake and his siblings set out a plate of cookies and a glass of eggnog with a shot of whiskey. Sarah climbed the ladder to her room, and the boys ran out back to their hut, chattering the whole way. The children were so filled with anticipation they could barely sleep, but they closed their eyes and forced the honey dew of slumber* to come.
Little Jake was just falling off to sleep; when suddenly, big Jake was jolted from his dream by the crash of his dinner plate hitting the nursing home floor. Behind the orderly, who had dropped the plate, was a heavy-set nurse with graying teeth. She came to draw blood for routine tests. Jake felt as though he'd been jerked violently from his bliss. He resented the intrusion into his dream. While the orderly busily cleaned up his mess, the nurse pursed her lips and pricked him and thumbed the tube as the blood flowed into it. After the nurse and the orderly left, Jake's eyes fell heavy and he went back into his dreams; this time the morphine betrayed him. It took a sharp turn that plunged him into the day that changed his world forever.
Jake and his siblings, Caleb and Sarah, had risen early. They were more excited than usual as they slipped on their rubber boots to do their morning chores. The ground was moist from the light rain the night before. As soon as their chores were done, the three were going to go on a horseback ride and a rabbit hunt. Jake had wanted to ride to the Grand Canyon but it was too far for a one-day ride. Even at age 8, Jake loved how the Arizona ranch changed with each mile: from the desert red-rock formations to the old-growth forests to the steep, lush canyons.
At the ranch's center was their home, a cabin that their Father had built. Daniel, a stout and strict man with black wire-frame glasses, made the roof out of corrugated tin, and the walls out of red rock and logs. The latter, he had hand notched. The covered front porch, which he had braced with log pillars, was where the family most often gathered. Now the porch, with two rocking chairs and a swing, sat empty as Mother prepared breakfast, Father chopped wood, and the children did their chores. The home had no running water, only an outside hand pump, and there was no electricity. They lived too far from the electrical lines. Besides his mother feared the electrical wiring would cause an explosion and burn down their lovely home. So homework was done by kerosene lamps but with two more months of summer, the children didn't worry about the dreary days of school.
Downstairs, where they ate, was a single room with a rock fireplace. At one end were two green recliners and an orange and yellow checkered couch. At the other end, in the corner, was the kitchen, which had a hand-hewed wood table with two family-style benches, a wood-burning stove and oven, and a faucetless sink, which drained out into the yard. The kitchen cupboard fronts were covered with curtains their mother had made from old yellow sheets. The window curtains matched and had leather tie backs. On the counters, three large steel pots of water were kept full: one for drinking, one for washing dishes and scrubbing vegetables and one for cleaning up before meals. A tin cup, which the family shared, hung from the drinking pot.
When the tow-headed Jake, with a mass of curls tickling his brow, finished collecting eggs from the hen house, he placed the basket of eggs in the crook of his arm. As he hurried out into the open, Jake kicked a gray river rock several paces ahead, caught up to it and kicked it again, caught up to it and kicked it again. He repeated the ritual over and over until he reached the corral. Jake's eyes grew wide. Sarah and Caleb were letting the horses out of the corral to graze when they heard Jake call out.
“Sarah, Caleb, come quick.”
“Jacob, we're busy,” said Sarah with a sharp snip.
“You're going to want to see this,” replied Jake with such urgency the other two abandoned their duties and hurried over.
Jake pointed to the huge tracks on the wet ground. Caleb and Sarah abruptly stopped their chattering and eyed the five-padded print with no nails. Jake and his siblings had been on enough hunts with their father to know what that meant but Jake said it aloud anyway.
“That’s not a dog or coyote track, and it’s too large to be a bobcat.”
“Do you think that’s the mountain lion that killed our yearling colt?” asked Sarah.
“The tracks are the same size,” responded Caleb.
All three looked at each other and each knew what the other two were thinking.
“The tracks are fresh,” said Sarah.
“The winds are still,” said Jake.
Jake and his siblings knew still winds gave the best chance for the dogs to pick up a scent. Winds would carry the scent off the cat's tracks. The kids had seen it too often. The dogs would end up frantically sniffing in circles. Jake spit in his hand, Caleb and Sarah did the same, and the three shook, pledging to go after the mountain lion. The colt the lion had killed was to be Jake's next horse, his first to train. He wanted the cat's blood.
“Not a word to Mother or Father,” Jake whispered, although their parents were too far away to hear. Jake knew Father and Mother would forbid them to go alone. He, as well as Sarah and Caleb, fantasized that he or she would be the hero who'd take down the lion.
None of them knew that at the edge of the woods, that same cat purred and swished her tail as she eyed a sorrel-and-white calf suckling on her mother's teat.
At the breakfast table that morning, the kids quickly ate their eggs and biscuits. Not a word was spoken.
“Why are you three so quiet? Must be up to something,” teased their mother as she slipped in a new batch of biscuits in the wood-burning stove.
This soft-spoken woman in her thirties always tended to things in the kitchen, either canning or baking bread or cooking up a rabbit stew or frying elk chops or whipping up a venison roast. She was viewed as delicate, in need of protection. All women were to be protected and revered, even if she was an older sister who shot better than both her brothers. This fact about Sarah vexed Jake and Caleb. Still, Father always had the boys stand when Mother or Sarah walked in the room. If they failed to, they went without the next meal, which was usually an elk, deer or rabbit that Father or one of the three kids shot.
Jake, Caleb and Sarah slipped a couple biscuits and several slices of elk jerky in their saddle bags and lied to their parents, promising rabbit for dinner, when each hoped it would be mountain lion they'd feast on this evening.
Sarah climbed the ladder that led to the upstairs attic to get her wide-brimmed hat and a handkerchief to protect her from the sun. Upstairs, the attic had been divided into two rooms, one for their parents and one for Sarah. At one time, all the siblings shared one room until Sarah got too old to room with the boys. The boys stayed in a detached log hut, which had been the family tool shed. The father sealed the open slits in the wood with cement to keep the wind out, and he put in a pot-bellied stove to warm the room in the winter months. In town, he had a couple pieces of glass cut, which he framed and made into windows for the boys. The mother cut curtains out of an elk hide and used strips of leather, hawk feathers and Indian beads to make the tiebacks. The boys loved the maleness of living in the rugged hut. They liked to pretend they were mountain men, independent and grown up.
Sarah almost ruined their retreat when she begged to live in it. Jake seethed as he watched Sarah work Father. Daniel almost always gave into his daughter's pouty requests, but his innate need to protect his women won. Somehow, he just couldn't allow his daughter to sleep anywhere but under his roof, although, he knew it was somewhat irrational since she'd only be a few feet away. He felt boys were more capable of taking care of themselves if something went awry,
Still, Sarah argued her position with the girlish smile that put a twinkle in her eyes. These weapons Father usually found irresistible. Both boys thought their dream mountain hut was lost and Jake wished he never had a sister.
“Father, I am the oldest, and I can handle a gun better than my brothers. I can hunt, dress a deer, chop wood and find my way in the wilderness as well as they. You know if I was your son you wouldn’t hesitate.”
She had him reconsidering until the last sentence, and for him that was the end of the discussion, “True, but you're not my son. You're my daughter.”
Father so hated to see his girl's eyes dim and her smile fade, but this was one subject he couldn't be swayed on, and Sarah knew it. She had seen that look of finality in his eyes before. Jake silently cheered the victory, but he knew better than to gloat, or he might be relegated to the kitchen floor and Caleb would have the hut to himself.
After breakfast, Jake, Sarah and Caleb saddled up their horses and slipped their rifles into their sheaths. They hadn't been gone from the house for more than a couple hours when the wet tracks they'd been easily following disappeared into the rocks and hard, dusty ground. The rains hadn't hit this far away. Ahead in the woods, Jake could hear the dogs--Lady, Jessie, Hart--working the cat's trail. The low winds were in favor of the young hunters. They stayed back enough to not interfere with the dogs but close enough to catch up if the mountain lion was treed. When necessary, the three hacked through the heavy brush with their bowie knives.
Jake knew by the direction of the barking that the cat had moved east into Dead Man's Canyon with its towering rock walls and spiked vegetation. The canyon was christened this ominous name when a ranch hand, who helped settle the family's land, rode out to gather up a stray calf. His horse reared on a narrow switchback, thrusting them both over the edge. Their remains lay forever in a deep crevice that no man can reach.
As the Cauble siblings began their descent down into the canyon, Sarah was in the lead, Jake in the middle and Caleb brought up the rear. The horses knew the country well and easily maneuvered down the rocky path that their ancestors had long ago worn, the same path that Jake, Sarah and Caleb had traveled many times. Once the three reached the canyon floor, they let the horses stop for a drink in the spring. Each drank their fill and then the kids pushed them on toward the sound of the barking.
Soon the canyon open up into a valley, and the horses perked up their ears and picked up the pace. All the siblings smiled because they knew what the horses wanted. Sarah gave her horse a click of the tongue and leaned forward to give her permission to lope. That was all the invitation her red-roan mare needed. Her back haunches pushed off the ground and moved into a smooth, steady lope that felt like a rocking chair. The boys let their horses take the mare's cue and they too took off. Soon they were in an abandoned apple orchard by the cabin their great-grandparents lived in when they first settled this country.
Jake loved to ride here and pretend it was 1875 and that he had brought his family west to ranch. His great-grandparents had planted the orchard generations ago and sold the apples in Flagstaff. Sometimes they'd trade a bushel of apples for salt pork or flour or sugar. Jake surveyed the fruit. Most of the apples were too puny and green to eat or lay on the ground rotting; their sweet fermented fragrance filled the air. It was too early in the season for the crisp, red apples the horses longed for. The kids wisely passed them by to let them ripen. The horses dropped their heads and dragged their hooves like children forced to walk past a snow cone stand empty-handed. In the fall, Jake vowed to himself to bring the horses back and let them eat their fill. While they ate, he'd gather a bushel to take back to can for the winter and to make pies, apple butter and jelly.
Not long after they rode away from the orchard, the dogs' barking accelerated, faster and faster until they were in a frenzy. Sarah spurred her horse and all three horses took off at a gallop, winding through the trees, pounding the forest's soft ground. The horses kicked up dirt and snorted, and Jake's black gelding threw his head in excitement. Once the dogs were in site, Sarah pulled back on her reins. The dogs were barking below a large pine.
“Does anyone see the mountain lion in the pine?” she asked as she squinted and searched the branches.
The three were quiet as they searched, suddenly Jake cried out, “I do, I do.”
Sarah spurred her horse on and the others followed. When she got within firing range, she pulled her horse to a stop and unsheathed her rifle. All three had agreed she'd take the first shot since she was the best. The boys, especially Jake, didn't like letting a girl have the kill, but they wanted the cat more than their prepubescent pride. The boys unsheathed their rifles as well in case they had a chance to fire. Sarah raised her rifle and just as she squeezed the trigger her horse skittered and spun around. She missed. The cat bowed its back at the blast. Caleb sat stunned in silence and didn't move as the lion leaped toward the dogs. Jake raised his rifle with the skill of a long-time hunter, and fired, hitting the cat before it hit the ground. The dogs scattered, and the cat fell where canines once stood barking. Jake had hit her in the barrel of the chest. She died instantly.
Sarah whirled her horse around, prepared to shoot again. Instead, she called out in amazement, “Caleb, you hit him.”
“I didn't do it. It was Jake,” the two turned to him with a newfound admiration.
“Jake, that was amazing,” stammered Caleb.
“I'll say,” said Sarah in awe.
“Ah, it was nothing,” said Jake, his voice slightly shaking.
Inside, Jake was turning summersaults, but he kept his yippees quiet. Even at his tender age, Jake knew a man didn't gloat. A man doesn't show anger, fear, pain, tears and especially not unabashed joy. Father was most proud when at age 6, Jake didn't scream as the doctor set his broken leg caused from a fall off a horse. Now Jake was as determined to not scream, even if it was in delight. The best way for it to be made a big deal of was to act like it was nothing. So he simply took out his knife and cut it from its throat to its belly. He had helped his father gut and clean game many times, so he knew exactly what to do. When he was finished, Sarah and Caleb helped Jake string the cat up in a tree.
While the blood drained, the three sat down to lunch and let the horses graze. As the kids nibbled on biscuits and elk jerky and the berries and pecans they'd picked along the way, they laughed and told the tale of Jake's first mountain lion. Jake smiled with pride, knowing this tale would be told and embellished for many years to come, perhaps even his grandchildren would hear the story. It would become a part of the family folklore.
After lunch, Jake, Sarah and Caleb gathered several fallen branches, careful to pick out the straightest ones. Then Jake tied the branches together with his rope and Sarah took her lariat and tied the stretcher to the back of her mare. Jake and Caleb lowered the cat from the tree and put it on the stretcher and headed home, victorious and proud. Jake knew Mother and Father would be angry, but the spring's colts would be safe and the meat would feed the family for several weeks. The hide, of course, belonged to Jake. He'd already decided it was going on his bed. It would keep him warm this winter.
Jake daydreamed about the night to come as they traveled home. Tonight, they'd cut the tenderloins out and slow smoke them in the pit. Mother would make her red sauce from dried ancho chiles and smother it over the top. Sarah would pick some fresh greens and dig up some new potatoes out of the garden. The peach pie that Mom had on the window sill this morning would certainly be dessert. They'd pour fresh cream with a touch of sugar and vanilla on top. Father would probably dip into his home-brewed beer he'd made from barley. He never got drunk but at celebratory times such as this, he'd savor a pint of the sweet brew. Yes, the parents might be mad but they'd celebrate after the “talk,” and Sarah would get hugs and the boys a handshake. Mother would sneak hugs to the boys when Father wasn't looking. This would be a joyous celebration. Sarah and Caleb would tell the tale of his first mountain lion, and he'd shrug his shoulders as if it were nothing. He'd be a man on the outside, but inside he'd be a boy and yelling yippee.
And Jake was right, everything went just as he had imagined, that is until nightfall. The parent's did give them a “talk” and then the family celebrated Jake's first mountain lion, but it wasn't long after the celebratory evening that Jake began to shiver with fever, his head ached and his neck stiffened. Within a couple hours, the muscles in his legs ached, and his breathing was labored. Mother looked pale as she eyed her young lad with a dread that comes when one might lose a child. Father tried to hide his fear, but his eyes told what he wouldn't say. The parents looked at each other, and both knew but neither said the dreaded word. Mother and Father sent Sarah and Caleb into the house. Mother told them to boil the sheets, towels, clothes and stuffed animals. Sarah took charge. They both knew this was no time for questions or to cry.
The parents loaded their little hero into the station wagon and rushed him to Flagstaff. There was no one to call for help. Their nearest neighbor was forty miles away. By the time they reached the hospital, Jake had almost quit breathing. Mother had crawled into the back seat and rocked him up and down forcing the air into and out of his lungs. Mary usually flourished in times of crisis. When tragedy hit, her energy multiplied. She could stay up day and night and fight whatever scourge threatened her home or family. A crisis meant a break from the mundane. Her need to rescue was as intense as their Australian shepherd's drive to herd. This time was different. This time, Mary felt helpless. Polio, the word she feared to speak aloud, had its tentacles in her youngest, trying to steal him from the safety of her bosom. A blur of white--nuns, nurses, doctors--rushed around him and placed him on a gurney. Words were spoken but Jake understood nothing. His mind heard nothing but static like a TV station that had gone off air.
A bellow was placed over Jake's mouth; a nun hand-pumped air into his collapsing lungs. All was a blur of activity. Moments later, they were all on top of the hospital roof. The whirl of helicopter blades added to the frenzy. The gust of wind it produced almost knocked Mary off her feet. Jake was torn away from his parents and rushed into the helicopter. Mary's frightened eyes looked to those attending to her son, pleading for some sign that everything would be okay. Finding nothing, her eyes became as empty as her arms, which no longer held her 8-year-old son. Flagstaff didn't have a polio ward. He was being flown to Phoenix. Daniel and Mary weren't allowed to go any further.
Daniel tried to push their way onto the helicopter, but a large black orderly blocked his path. He wanted to deck the man and force his way through, but he knew that would do nothing to help his ailing son. Jake saw his parents, trapped. He wanted to cry out for his mother, but even if he could he wouldn't have shamed his family with such a demonstration.
By the time Jake arrived in Phoenix, his muscles and joints had already seized up; even his facial muscles wouldn't allow him to talk. The hero had been taken down, unable to walk, move his limbs or even breathe on his own. The sound of his parents and the sound of his own breathing were replaced by a great whooshing sound. He darted his eyes from side to side trying to find his mother and father. They were gone. Panic grabbed him, pressing on his throat. He felt as if he was disappearing to all he once knew. The intense fear went as fast as it came and then there was a nothingness, a vastness as dark as a black hole. Everything was too intense, too surreal. Later, he would realize he had gone into blessed shock.
All he could see was a whirl of white, a sea of iron lungs, shiny like a car bumper and shaped like submarines, in a room the size of a gymnasium. The ceiling was high and the lights bright. Jake couldn't see the floor, but he imagined it was white linoleum. He could hear the rubber soles squeak as the nurses and doctors moved across it so he knew it wasn't carpet. His freedom with its wide-open spaces had been stolen in a matter of hours, and he had become a captive submerged in this metal tube. Back in Flagstaff, Jake's parents clung to each other and cried. Daniel was glad of only one thing. His son wasn't there to see him weep.
* From Tenneyson’s poem Tithonus, whose lover requested the Greek gods to give him immortality but neglected to also ask for eternal youth so he was damned to live an eternity of decrepitness.
 *Partial quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
When Sister Teresa spoke to Father Michael, her voice rarely went above a whisper, a whisper no louder than a breeze stirring blades of grass. She had a child-like face with a natural-pink blush to her cheeks and round dark eyes that fell to the ground when she spoke. It was as if she was constantly apologizing for speaking, for existing. Michael Angelo could have found no better creature to model as an angel, an angel not yet fitted with a halo.
Last winter, when Sister Teresa first came to St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Father Michael asked her to join him in his sparsely appointed rectory. In the center of the room lay a rugged antique walnut desk with drawers on either side, a mica lamp and two mission-style chairs. On the cracked mud walls was a faded mural of a malnourished Christ nailed to a cross in a field of criminals nailed in the same manner. Above the cedar door was a black cross with a tin-shaped heart at its center, his only remaining material reminder of Emma. She had given it to him Christmas day many years ago. Outside the room's colonial-style windows, the Father and Sister could see snow falling on the church grounds. A wood-burning potbellied stove warmed the room.
The priest motioned for her to sit down and placed a couple more logs in the stove. Snowflakes were melting on her black-wool coat, which was still buttoned.
“Please, take off your wet coat,” he said, as if irritated at her excessive shyness. Hesitantly, she obeyed as a dutiful child might. He took the coatfrom her and shook it. Droplets spotted the floor as he hung it close by the stove to dry. Beside her a duffle bag carried all her belongings: a change of clothes, a photograph of her parents, a bible, a nightgown and a few toiletries and undergarments.
Cold and aloof, Father Michael asked about her background. Shyly, she answered each question in the shortest sentences she could without appearing high-minded. A news reporter would have found her an impossible subject to quote. No question was rewarded with additional details. When asked where she grew up, he only received Hondo, New Mexico, nothing on what it was like in the town or the type of home she lived in. The Sister didn't elaborate on the simplest tidbits, not even adding what month she was born in when asked her age. “Twenty-four” was all she said.
When asked if she like Taos, New Mexico, she simply answered, “Yes, Father Michael;” no elaboration on the sites she had seen or comments on the landscape. Perhaps her shyness was in part because of Father Michael. While he endeavored, albeit half-heartedly, not to show his displeasure with her arrival, the distant manner in which he spoke the simplest pleasantry, told the story. Father Michael had resented the diocese decision to send her; their decision that he needed assistance. For almost a year, the priest ran the church alone, thriving in the solitude. Volunteers helped when needed but were gone when he desired privacy. The truth was that he resented her presence, resented his privacy being intruded on. Once the parishioners left, the church would no longer be all to himself. The secluded walls would no longer comfort him in his self-imposed exile.
Slower than scraping tar off asphalt, Father Michael discovered tidbits about the Sister who had come to his parish. The discovery took months. It was as if her history had been put into a shredder and the pieces thrown to the wind. The strips had to be found and one-by-one pieced together. Direct questions rarely worked. Usually, he'd have to ask almost as if he already knew the answer. She'd confirm or deny his theory. In this manner, he learned that Sister Teresa's decision to become a nun was difficult. Her parents had relied on their only child to give them grandchildren. This was the first time she ever went against their wishes. Her parents rarely came to see her, and the visits usually ended with her mother crying. Two years ago, when she accepted Christ as her husband, they refused to come. This broke the Sister's heart, but the Lord was a calling she couldn't forsake, not even for the parents she loved dearly.
When Father Michael's questions prodded too deeply, she'd change the subject to some need she had for the choir or the children's Sunday school classes. The Sister kept much private. Sister Teresa didn't tell the priest that in high school, she found the dating ritual odd and unfulfilling. When her peers wore short skirts and tight jeans, she preferred modest dresses that buttoned to her throat and hung to her ankles. Other girls would become giddy over this cute boy or that cute boy, spending hours preparing their hair, clothes and makeup. Sister Teresa never experienced this frivolity. She felt like an ocean without a shore among her peers. Nor did she tell the Father that she had never known a man in a womanly way, the intimate way her mother knew her father. She didn't share that when she prayed, the Lord wrapped her in his arms as surely as a husband holds a wife. No mortal man could live up to her God.
Her feelings of being an outcast disappeared when she entered into the nunnery, her home. A peace came over her that she'd never experienced with a boy. None of this she could explain to her parents, nor did she try. These private feelings, longings, she kept guarded with the same affection as a man in love refuses to divulge intimacies about his lover. Shared words would only cheapen the union's sanctity.
As the months passed, her presence troubled Father Michael more and more, even though the Sister rarely spoke and kept to herself. The Father admitted that Sister Teresa's musical background in voice, piano and choral studies made an excellent addition to the parish's choir. She provided the needed accompaniment on the organ, and her patience and experience with children gave much to the Sunday school department, which she ran. And, admittedly, her high-soprano voice was a joyful addition to the religious services. She was a fine cook and kept their private rooms in nice order.
Still, she made him feel restless in a way he wanted to forget. A nun's strident dress couldn't be less comely. Yet, nothing could spoil her natural beauty, curves and delicate features. The rustling of her dress, the swishing of her dusting the furniture and the clinking of her washing dishes upset him. In truth, the sound of her sitting and turning the pages in her book annoyed him.
The Father didn't want to miss the way Emma placed her lips and cheek against his face to calm him, nor the way she knew just when to take his hand. Sister Teresa was a constant reminder of what was gone and could never return. The earth had stolen Emma back into its folds. Leave, Leave, Leave, he wanted to yell at the Sister. Yet, day-after-day, he found himself listening for the rustle of her dress, even while praying she wouldn't show herself. At night, he noticed her light under her door, heard her bare feet move across the floor. At times, her breathing seemed as loud as a storm.
Once, Father Michael even tried to have her removed from his parish. A woman's help wasn't anything he wanted, needed or appreciated. Why couldn't they send a monk? A monk would be more suitable. One man, one woman shouldn't share a home--even a house of worship--unless they were married. At least, that's how the priest saw it. The only response was from the diocese's elder Father, “The priesthood is no place to hide. Look inside yourself and choose your path.”
This only angered Father Michael. “My path is not in question,” he said hotly and then slammed the phone down. For several days, he stayed in his room, saying he was ill. He couldn't imagine life outside the church; he only wanted away from Sister Teresa. Why was this so difficult to understand? Somehow, he had to get Sister Teresa to leave.
Fifteen-year-old Peter Marshall spoon fed his mother squashed carrots and pureed chicken as he watched a TV flickering through their next-door neighbor's window. He wished he could turn on his idiot box, as his mother called it, but the electricity had been turned off. Peter cared for his mother night and day. Twenty years of smoking had ravished her lungs and his pubescent years. He rarely left her except to attend mass on Sundays and Wednesdays. It wasn't that he was religious. His mother didn't raise him in the church, although she was Catholic; still it comforted him to imagine God as a flesh-and-blood father, who gave him advice and protected him. So for him, church was where his father lived.
Still, Peter no longer had the luxury of being a child. As a parent, he fed his mom, changed her diapers and bathed her. At first, he was embarrassed to see her undressed but as the necessity grew, his discomfort had no choice but to lessen. The sicker his mother became the more child-like were her behaviors. Anne would spit her food out when she didn't like it, knock over her soda when he didn't have bourbon to put in it and throw a temper tantrum when she didn't get chocolate.
School was no longer a concern. Six months ago, when his mother became bedridden with emphysema, he forged a letter from his mother saying they were moving to Texas. No one at school questioned the letter's authenticity, and Peter disappeared from the public-school system. Friends didn't call on him because he didn't really have any. Although, he was a good-looking boy, he preferred being a loner. He shunned all the clicks--the freaks, the jocks, the popular crowd, the shit-kickers and even the band geeks--because they were all about exclusion, cruelty to misfits.
At one time, he thought he could start a click of loners but that would defeat the purpose of being a loner. Clicks vied for the handsome boy's allegiance. The freaks thought he might be one of them because he smoked. The popular crowd wanted him for his beauty, and the jocks tried to claim him because his height, speed and athleticism, but none of that was for Peter. He reviled how the clicks continued into adulthood. The professionals and the educated drank wine and went to trendy restaurants and feared those without. The filthy rich summered in the cooler climates and wintered in the warmer climates and appeased their guilt by attending extravagant charity balls. The blue collar laborers drank beer and laughed at those in the upper classes. Indians stuck to the reservations and decried the misdeeds of the white man. Blacks embraced their own lingo and declared education an affront to their ways, and the homeless congregated together on the city streets, hating all those they begged from. Ultimately, America hadn't fared much better than India's caste system or England's class system in Peter's eyes. Even in his own family, the maid, who had worked for them for 20 years, was never invited to parties. She'd help prepare for them, but no one considered inviting her, not even the maid. Those who crossed the invisible lines were treated with suspicion or at best distant politeness. If the maid had ever been invited to a party, whispering lips would have gossiped about her attendance.
Nothing at school enticed Peter to join up. Girls had yet to make much of an impression on him. To him, they were odd creatures who cried at ridiculous times. As far as Peter was concerned, they were barely tolerable but had to be endured because they reproduced. Only recently, did he decide that, at least, they didn't have cooties. Many girls at his school showed interest in him, but he found their flirting, cooing ways to be as annoying and manipulative as a cat that purrs and rubs on one’s leg to get something rather than to give affection. His mother was the only one he saw differently. To him she was a saint, who dedicated her life to his well-being. Now that she was dying, he couldn't imagine another woman filling the void. It didn't occur to him that another saint might be preparing herself for someone just like him. But then his hormones hadn't aroused him as of yet, either.
Other boys his age were already sexually active or so they bragged. He saw no use for the boys who talked or the girls who did it. The whole idea of sex repulsed him. This was the only thing he couldn't resolve about his own mother. He couldn't imagine her gyrating in such a loathsome manner. So he just chose to believe he must have come about in some other fashion. None of this he could share with his peers. The truth was he liked having secrets even if they weren't really worth being kept secret. His reputation as a loner made him mysterious, an enigma or at least that's what a girl had called him once. Frankly, Peter wasn't sure she even knew what an enigma was; still he liked it.
Since Peter left school, there was one girl who came around to see him. Katie was no more interested in boys than he was in girls. They were both loners and consequently got along. Katie first saw Peter one night when she caught him stealing from the grocery store, where she worked as a bagger. She said nothing to him or the management. Instead, she followed him home and sat and watched him through the window brushing his mother's hair, painting her nails, reading to her and feeding her. This touched her.
The next morning, Katie showed up at his house, carrying a skateboard in one hand and a sack of groceries in the other. Peter, who was sitting on the porch steps, thought she resembled a mouse with her dull-brown hair, button nose and pursed lips. Peter's nerves were frazzled and his hands shook as he smoked a cigarette. His mom was in pain, and he could do nothing to stop it. For the first several months that his mother was ill, he kept the bills paid, but the money in the bank ran out. The telephone and the electricity had been turned off, and bank notices were threatening to repossess the home. There was no money left for her prescriptions. Peter managed only to keep the water and gas going and prayed that he could hold off the bank until his mother passed away. He forged letters from his mother promising payments and asking for a little more time.
“I saw you stealing from the grocery store. I figured you needed these,” Katie said as she handed him the bag of groceries.
Peter eyed her nervously. The last thing he needed was to be arrested when his mother needed him so badly.
“Don't worry; I'm not going to turn you in. I stole these groceries, too.”
Through the window, Katie saw the frail woman he cared for curled up in a ball crying. Loose folds of skin covered her bones like a sheet worn thin from too much use.
“You know doctors prescribe pot for cancer patients to kill pain,” said Katie. “I grow it in my attic. I could bring some for your mom.”
“At this point, I'd try anything. The pain just keeps getting worse and worse, but I don't know how I can get her to try it. She's adamantly against drugs.”
“Maybe she doesn't have to know.”
Motioning for him to follow her, Katie walked up the steps and let herself in the house. She glanced around for the kitchen. Finding it, she pulled open cabinets and drawers. In no time, she had found a mixing bowl, a hand beater, some measuring cups as well as milk, butter and eggs. Peter watched on confused as to why he was letting this stranger go through his kitchen, but at the same time he sensed that she was genuinely trying to help.
“Have you got any flour and cocoa powder?”
“They're above the refrigerator. What are you doing?”
Katie didn't answer. She just kept working, mixing together the flour, cocoa powder, eggs, sugar, milk and butter. Once it was smooth, she zipped open her knapsack and pulled out a bag of leaves and sprinkled some in the mixture. After mixing the brownies a tad more, she spooned the mixture into a greased pan and slipped it into the gas oven. In 20 minutes, Katie had a fresh batch of marijuana brownies cooling on a wire rack. From that day on, Peter's mother became much more agreeable and most importantly pain free. She even craved the pabulum he fed her.
From that day on, Katie and he were friends even though Katie and he were very different. For one, she was a pothead, which Peter didn't usually tolerate, but Katie respected that he didn't do drugs and never tried to persuade him. She only supplied him with enough to help his mother. Peter shared his life with her and in turn Katie helped him. She brought him groceries regularly. At the end of her shift, she'd stuff her coat full of day-old bakery goods and anything else that had passed its expiration date. They could sit and talk for hours or just be silent with each other. Peter had never met anyone he could talk to as much. Somehow or another, they just fit together. She was like a little sister to him. Several weeks after Peter had met Katie, his mother's breathing became even more shallow and raspy than usual. The end was near. He wanted to see Katie, but she'd always come to him so he didn't know where she lived. Since he didn't have a phone, he never asked her for her number. Not knowing what to do, he ran out into the storm.
At the church, Sister Teresa had closed up her bedroom window, which she usually left cracked, and slipped on a fuzzy sweater that her mother had knitted her. A cold, spring storm thundered outside. Her room, which had a corner fireplace, only had space for a child-sized pine dresser, an altar and a twin bed, covered with a quilt she had sewn from scraps. At the head of the bed tilted a single flat pillow enshrouded in dull white linen. On the altar, dedicated to Mary, lay a rosary, a half-melted lavender candle and the image of the Divine Mother.
The Sister had no sooner settled into bed with her reading glasses and book, when a banging on the church's front doors startled her. The night's thunder and lightning made the banging seem all the more intense. The Sister peeked out her door and saw that the Father's light wasn't on. Apparently, he was sleeping so soundly that he failed to hear the thunderous protesting.
Hurriedly, she put on her robe and lit a candle since the light in the hallway was broken. Cupping her hand to protect the flame, she glided quickly down the hall and through the cathedral's aisle. Her shadow, much larger than herself, eclipsed the crucifix hanging above the altar. The banging grew louder and more insistent as she entered into the foyer.
A voice cried out, “Father.”
Taking a deep breath, she unlatched the doors. A chilly wind blew out the flame she had nursed so carefully. An angry young man drenched in rain stood before her. Quickly, his rage changed to despair once he saw the unexpected face. The boy didn't look strong enough to have been banging so loud. In desperation, he grabbed her arms pleading. She pulled back from his touch. Something in his desperation, in his eyes, frightened her or perhaps it wasn't him at all, perhaps it was something in the night, the storm. He blushed as she pulled away.
“Sister, I'm sorry. I need to see Father Michael right away.”
Nodding her head, the Sister let the stranger in and disappeared down the hall toward the Father's room.
Sister Teresa tapped on Father Michael's door so lightly that if he'd been awake he might have mistaken it for a creak in the house. She knocked again, this time slightly louder.
Stirring from his sleep, the priest listened unsure if he'd heard knocking. Once he retired to bed, he wasn't accustomed to visitors. The Sister had never knocked on his bedroom door before. Somehow, she knew to respect the only remaining domain where he could isolate himself. She knocked even louder. This time, he slipped on his robe and came to the door.
“A young man is in the foyer,” whispered the Sister in an apologetic tone. “He seems quite distressed and says he must see you immediately,”
The Father quickly dressed and hurried to the foyer. He wasn't sure what he'd say to his son, but he asked God to help him find the words.
Standing before Father Michael wasn't his dark-headed Matthew. It was a boy of maybe 14, with wet long, blond curls and pleading green eyes.
“Father, please come. My mother is very ill. She will be gone before the night is over. Please read her her last rites.”
The boy wasn't a member of his parish, but the Father had seen him come alone for mass a few times. The boy always rushed out after mass and never spoke to Father Michael nor went to confession or to Sunday school. His eyes weren't like other boys his age, carefree and mischievous; they carried the burden of the weary. The Father wouldn't turn him away. He put on his jacket and hat and disappeared into the darkness with the boy.
As the two walked quickly and quietly, the rain had subsided to a drizzle. About a hundred feet behind them, a man followed. The boy's home stood on a small patch of land a couple blocks away. The church steeple could be seen from over the neighbor's rooftop. When they reached the small stucco home with a terra-cotta roof, there were no lights, only a lantern in the main room, where the mother, gray but no more than 50, lay: her eyes sunken, almost hollow; her lips parched and cracked. The boy gently lifted the mother's head and slipped a small piece of ice in her mouth.
From outside, Matthew watched his father give the dying woman her last rites; he watched as the Father made the sign of the cross on her forehead and on her hands, and he watched as the Father's lips murmured the rites said by so many priests, so many times before. Matthew felt envious that the boy, the members of Father Michael's congregation, had had his father all this time, but a part of Matthew softened as he watched the boy's grateful face admiring his father, the Father.
By the time the Michael returned from his midnight duties, dawn still hadn't come. He had expected the house to be quiet, but Sister Teresa was in the courtyard surveying the damage the storm had done to the geraniums, lantana, sage, moss roses and salvia she had newly planted. She noticed the grass heads were just beginning to poke through the top soil, but the color and grandeur of spring had not yet been unsheathed from its buds.
The Father didn't stop to acknowledge her; he just slipped into his room to rest, disappointed that the late night visitor wasn't his own son.
On the days Sister Teresa could steal a few moments to herself, she'd sneak over to see her grandmother, Louisa. When Sister arrived at the hacienda-style nursing home, her grandmother stared blankly at the TV screen with no more interest than a cat bored with its ball and string.
In her youth, Louisa was a striking woman with hair as black as a cast-iron skillet and skin as fair as a snowy egret. Each Sunday, she sang lead soprano in her church choir. During the week, she gave voice lessons to have pin money for girlie pretties such as a new pair of gloves or a barrette or a frilly hat to wear about town. Living was her passion. She was always on the go. Getting dolled up to go dancing was among her favorites, but she equally loved to slip on her overalls and dig in the garden.
Her long, black hair now shimmered silver and fell to the center of her back, surprisingly thick for a woman in her 90s. Sister Teresa sat on the edge of the bed and gave her grandmother kisses and told her how much she loved her. Her grandmother had long ago stopped saying she loved Sister Teresa. She no longer knew the woman she had so many years ago cradled and cooed over. Louisa kissed her granddaughter's hand and stroked her arm in response to the affection, but her eyes showed no recognition. Still Louisa loved the attention. Sister Teresa always began each visit by telling Louisa about her day; then she'd hold her hand and read her books by Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott or D.H. Lawrence. Some days, she'd sing to her or say a prayer with the grandmother, who now thought she was just a nice nun.
On this particular day, as Sister Teresa began to leave, she bent over to kiss her grandmother's cheek goodbye. Louisa grabbed her hand and with surprising strength pulled Teresa close, “If I should die before I see you again, know you've been a joy.” Sister looked in her grandmother's pale gray eyes and for that one sweet moment the grandmother knew her granddaughter. Sister Teresa's eyes filled with tears, as she pushed her veil aside and kissed Louisa again.
Once in the hall, Sister covered her face and wept. The tears flowed easily. From across the hall, an old man called to her from his bed.
“Sister, don't cry.”
The Sister dried her eyes and walked into the man's room.
“This is a place where the mortal body comes to die, but we are the fortunate ones,” he said as his eyes twinkled. “We are closer to our God, just as small children when they first enter the world.”
“Yes, sometimes I forget that,” said Sister Teresa, smiling at the man, who had so graciously spoken the kind words she needed. “Would you like me to pray with you?” she asked.
“Could you stay and visit? I've missed the sound of a woman's soft voice. The women here, if you can call them that, scowl and speak in snips and bites,” he said, grimacing as if his mouth was filled with food as distasteful as the aides he so disliked. “Ah, here's one now. Come to feed me my pabulum, hey.”
The aide was a short, round woman with cornrows and long witch’s nails that curled under. A dinner plate was in her hands and a bib over her shoulder. Her face had a look of disgust as she gnawed on a wad of gum. With spit in her tone, she cooed sarcastically, “Good evening, sir.”
The plate she set down on a tray next to him, and she reached to fit the bib around his neck. The old man grabbed her arm and snatched it away. “I don't need that damn bib, and I can feed myself.”
The aide left, moving the tray just out of his reach. “Fine, feed yourself,” she spewed.
A sense of indignation came over Sister Teresa. In a firm voice that wasn't customary to her normal quiet demeanor, she called out, “Perhaps if you would greet your patients with kindness, they would do the same.”
Furious, the aide spun around to attack the voice behind her, but the sight of the nun flustered her. The aide, who had been so consumed with her own discontent that she hadn't noticed anything more than that another body was in the room, hurried out. Sister Teresa pushed the tray close to the man, who smiled admiringly at her.
“Please, sit with me. I can't help but overhear you with your grandmother. The walls are so thin.”
“I apologize for speaking so loud. It's the only way she can hear me.”
“Don't apologize. I enjoy hearing about your day and listening to the stories you read to her. It's as if I too have company. My name is Jake.”
“I'm Sister Teresa.”
In one afternoon, she shared more of her life in Hondo, New Mexico with Jake than she had ever shared with Father Michael. Jake's kind, easy going manners put her at ease. She told him how the church was the first place she belonged.
“Even as a child, I felt the world around me wasn't where I was meant to be,” said the Sister in her quiet, shy way. “In church, I'd watch the nuns glide past me, hear the stories of the Saints, and I knew that was my calling. This may sound stupid, but more than anything I want to learn all I can, so when I pass into heaven I can be one of God's guardian angels, to follow Saint Teresa, who said, ‘Let my heaven be doing good on earth.’”
Jake watched in awe as the gentlewoman spoke and thought how innocent, how unprepared for life she seemed. He wanted to wrap her in his protective arms and keep her safe from the brutality that could rip away her inner kindness. When Sister finished speaking, Jake told her about the ranch he grew up on, his time on the polio ward but mostly about his life on the Hopi reservation.
Eleven-year-old Jake stared out the station wagon window, speaking little to Sister Catherine, who was driving. The sun's harsh gaze had bleached the color from the steep and barren bluffs. The rocky desert around him had little vegetation, only smatterings of grassland and desert scrub. Jake saw no rivers or creeks, only trickles of water running down the washes from the morning's rain. They had passed through the Navajo Nation, which landlocked the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona. The station wagon coughed and sputtered as it attempted to climb thin narrow path.
By the time Jake and the nun arrived on the third mesa, steam drifted up from the car's radiator. The nun patted Jake's hand and gently told him, “Hopi means the People of Peace. The Oraibe clan is among the oldest civilizations in the Americas, dating back to 1100 A.D. It will make a good home.”
Bewildered, Jake searched her face for another meaning to her words. Finding none, he wanted to yell, “No,” but he was a Cauble, and a Cauble man didn't raise a fuss. Sister Catherine swung opened the back of the station wagon and lifted out his suitcase.
Jake felt as if he'd been hurled through a time warp into another realm centuries prior to his birth. The village resembled the medieval townships he had read about, but instead of fortresses with towering stone walls and crocodile-infested moats with draw bridges, the Hopi built their homes on three expansive mesas with steep cliffs and soaring rocky bluffs to protect them from warring tribes. Tumbled ruins of ancient condos tiered one on top of the other. The structures, made of stone and mud, had narrow windows and low-slung doorways. Stairs and wooden juniper ladders led to the upper floors, where large families shared tiny hovels. The lower levels were used for storage. Corn, the tribe's main staple, lay drying on the flat rooftops and roasting in underground pits.
Sister Catherine, who had helped care for him at the hospital, put her arm around Jake's shoulder as they drank in the sights. Men, women and children were milling about the streets. Regardless of their task, all watched the fair-haired child, who had come to live among them, some shyly and some more overtly. A plump young girl glanced up from the vessel she was forming, while a man, presumably her father, abandoned the colorful blanket he wove. A stooped old man slowed from his task of unloading wood from a burro that noshed on spoiled melon rinds thrown in the street. A young Indian girl shyly glanced his way as she bathed a toddler in a tin basin. Women in cotton skirts embroidered with colorful threads whispered among themselves about the blond boy.
Coming forth out of the crowd was a man, taller and slightly fairer than the other Hopi men. Jake thought he might be half white, but as the years past, the man never said and Jake never asked. He wore buckskin leggings, antelope moccasins, a red-velvet shirt and a large turquoise squash blossom around his neck. The Sister and he shook hands, and Jake greeted the man, who called himself Tawa, with a conservative, “Hello, sir.” As if correcting himself, Jake added, “Mr. Tawa.”
Tawa smiled at the polite boy and gently told him, “Just Tawa. The Hopi don't use titles such as Mr. and Mrs.”
Sister laughed at Jake's endearing faux-pas. Her girlish giggle seemed at odds with her masculine features: a harsh tall forehead, a bulbous nose and a wisp of a mustache below her lip. She was careful to tell Tawa about Jake's tendency to keep to himself, and Tawa assured her that he would guide the boy. Her smile spoke of her gratitude. After they lunched and toured the third mesa, the time came for the Sister to say goodbye. Water pooled in her eyes when she kissed Jake on the forehead.
As she drove away, a group of butterfly girls circled Jake and Tawa. Hopi girls, from puberty until marriage, twirled their hair into whorls, pinwheels on the sides of their heads, making them resemble butterflies. The girls giggled and spoke in their native language as they fondled his hair and touched the sockets around his eyes.
“They say your eyes are the color of water,” interpreted Tawa. “This will please the gods and bring rain. Rain is life to us. Without it, the crops die.”
Jake listened politely though he longed to go home, to see the ranch, to see his parents, his siblings or even go back with Sister Catherine. Although he hated the stark hospital, it was familiar, and the other kids were like him. Here, he was an oddity, a freak in a carnival show. Nothing was like anything he'd known before. Age wasn't counted by the year but by the number of corn crops. The songs weren't about she-done-me-wrong, stole-my-dog and wrecked-my-truck. They were about corn and bean blossoms, butterflies and rain.
Dances weren't an event for boys and girls to court. They were rituals to entice the gods to bring rain. Naked little girls would stand in a line below the houses and clap while the elders sprinkled water from the housetops. The girls would sing the Heveb song: “Huebeta, come, come, pour, pour, down. Hither, flying cloud. Sprinkle me, sprinkle me. Cloud come bathe me into a cluster of flowers, into a cluster of showers.”
That first night, the moon was as bright as a street lamp, a perfect half circle, as if someone had sawed the top off. Jake sat on an Indian blanket watching women grind the corn on large metates and fry piki bread, which was made from blue corn and was as thin as a cracker. One of the mothers sang to her infant, who was tightly bound on a board strapped to her back, as she worked. Tawa translated the lullaby for Jake, “Sleep, sleep, sleep. In the trail the beetles. On each others' backs are sleeping. So on mine, my baby, thou, sleep, sleep, sleep.”
Once Jake and the family ate the corn, beans and piki bread that was fixed for dinner, Jake climbed onto a floor pallet. His emotions were so drained; he fell asleep as his head touched the ground. He slept as if drugged.
The next day, once it became light, Tawa showed him to his permanent living quarters and left him on his own to settle in. The hut, made of rock and mud, had a dirt floor and a single slat for a window, where the sun shone through in the morning. The door was made of wood but didn't lock. The ceiling was so low that most grown white men would have had to crouch so not to hit their heads. It was no bigger than a girl's playhouse. At one end was an Indian blanket to sleep on and next to it a tin cup, plate, a fork and knife. In the corner stood a kiva, the embers long gone from the ash, and the bits of burnt wood had turned to charcoal. The bare mud walls had caked-on soot from centuries of fires.
Next to the pallet, Jake knelt beside a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Immediately recognizing the return address, he slipped his hand into his front jean pocket and pulled out his knife. With a flick of his thumb, he snapped it open, cut the string and ripped the brown wrapping. On top, lay a Polaroid photograph, four people waving as if they could see him. A faint smile etched across his face as he waved back, but there was one face Jake didn't recognize. He peered intently at the elderly man, with a shock of white hair, closer and closer. Grandfather had died so it couldn't be him; then Jake dropped down on his haunches as if someone had knocked him over. “Father!”
His father's hand rested on his mother's shoulder. She had always been a slight woman, delicate and frail, but now she had grown so thin she looked as if she could be snapped like a dried twig. Her smile was strained and her cheekbones sunken. Winter's aging hand had brushed crevices and streaks of frost on his mother and father as surely as spring had painted and sculpted Caleb and Sarah into adulthood. Caleb had grown taller and wider in the chest than their father. His face no longer had the impetuous grin of a boy. His chin was strong, and it was apparent that he was now shaving. Sarah's boyish body had been reshaped with the curves of womanhood, and she looked more a wife than child. Jake starred at the changed images over and over as if they could reveal all that had happened since his exile.
In time Jake set the photo on the windowsill, where he could see it from his pallet. Digging into the box, he pulled out his Western paperbacks with their yellowing pages, one earmarked where he had never finished the book. Pressed leaves fell out of the Zane Gray novel. Under the books lay a dozen or so arrowheads he had found on the ranch.
Several years ago, in late spring, he chased a calf deep into a narrowing canyon with rocky fingers towering above. Seeing the calf dash behind some thick brush, Jake jumped from his horse and followed. Peeking through the brush, he saw that it shrouded a cave entrance. Using his knife hanging from his belt, he hacked at the thorny mass and crawled through the narrow opening. When the walls tightened so he could no longer crawl, he lay on his belly and slithered through. The space grew tighter and darker. The tips of his fingers felt wetness on the ground and a trickle of water hit his head.
Turning a tight corner, he suddenly saw a thin ray of light, where the sun had slipped through a crack. The opening grew wide enough for him to crawl and then stand as he entered a large den, where a water pool shimmered in the center and dolomites hung from above. Jake squinted but couldn't make out what was on the walls. Lighting a match, he inched closer to the walls. Bright-red ancient Indian pictographs of running horses covered the cave walls.
Jake recalled his father telling him the Indians made paint with water, an iron-based mineral called ocher and a binder such as urine or blood. Lighting another match, he looked down at his feet and found two arrowheads. Over the next few years, he revisited and revisited the cave and dug and dug and found several more. He kept the arrowheads but never told anyone, not even his family, about his find. That was his private domain.
Jake once again reached into the box and pulled out his rifle, a Winchester 270 lever-action and several boxes of ammo. The rifle felt good in his hands. He lifted it to his shoulder and felt its heft. Lastly, he pulled out a bowie knife sheathed in a dark leather scabbard. The knife had belonged to his father. Jake unbuckled his belt and slipped the leather strap through his belt, then stacked the books on their spine and laid the arrowheads on top. If he could, Jake would have cried. While he was thrilled to have his father's knife and his things again, it also made his exile seem more permanent. He had no idea if he'd ever see his family again.
As a member of the tribe, Jake was expected to work in the fields. Tawa taught him how to tend to the flocks of turkey and sheep and herds of cattle and taught Jake how to dry farm. The tribe relied solely on the summer monsoons and snow during the winter, no irrigation. The arid land demanded the conservation of water so the fields couldn't be plowed. Digging reduced the ground moisture. Instead, Jake learned to use sticks to place the seeds deep in the earth so not to disturb the moisture in the soil. Jake didn't mind the hard work. In the fields, he could keep to himself and disappear into his fantasies, which had become more his life than the here and now.
In time, Jake began to love his new home. Here he grew independent and strong and learned the spiritual ways of the Hopi. He learned that the clans were matriarchal. When a man married, he moved into the woman's home, and she owned all the land. Men handled political and religious affairs, but healers were both male and female. Both sexes were highly respected because both were needed to survive. Jake prayed when the sun rose so it would carry his words to the gods, and prayed for all living things - human, animal, plants--just as the Hopi.
At first glance, the desert seemed void of color to Jake, but as the months passed, Jake began to see the brilliant reds and oranges at sunset and sunrise; the beauty of the rock formations; the snow-topped San Francisco Peaks; and the steep, rocky cliffs with striations of grays, browns and the faint oranges, reds, pinks, yellows and gold.
At the foot of the mesas, the corn and bean fields and the peach orchards added dabs of color as did the corn itself, which came in yellow, white, blue, red, black, spotted, pink and lilac. Even the beauty of the desolate flat mesas with their rocks and sagebrush intrigued him. Something was extraordinary in its plainness, its raw nakedness. At one time he only saw beige but now he saw the subtle shades of opal and bone.
After a year living with the tribe, Jake became as much Hopi as white. Even long after leaving the tribe, Jake blessed the animals he hunted and that gave their nourishment to him. As Tawa had taught him, Jake chanted reverentially and spread feathers on the ground where the hunted died.
Fetishes carved from bone became a part of his hunting rituals. Hopi believed fetishes empowered the hunter with the spirit and strength of the animal or god. Jake carried a hawk fetish when hunting bird, a mountain-lion fetish when hunting mule deer or elk, and much later, a left-handed Kachina fetish when hunting human, but this he didn't tell Sister Teresa. He spoke vaguely of his time in Orient but didn't reveal that he had been a mercenary, a hired assassin and informant, or that he became a professional hit man. She assumed that he had been in the military, and he let that lie lay between them. He desired to be pure, to exist in her eyes without his sins tainting her remembrance of him.
Sister Teresa asked few questions, just listened to as he spoke.
“By the time, I was called home from the reservation, I didn't want to leave; I wanted to see my family, but it felt more like I should visit, not live there. No one was prepared for my return.”
Jake shared his story about his homecoming and of the woman he fell in love with, but he didn't say she was Father Michael's mother, or that she had been murdered, or that he'd almost lost his sanity over her death. When he finished telling about his Rachel, Sister asked, “Why were you so afraid to love?”
Jake kept the truth to himself, that everyone he'd ever loved had forsaken him, and chose a vague response. “Why are any of us afraid? I just always knew I could never live with a woman I was in love with. I thought I would never forsake that vow.”
He didn't say that risking his heart had once been scarier than going back to the jungles of Laos, nor that he felt betrayed when he realized that his Rachel had slipped inside his castle walls like smoke drifting under a door. Betrayed by his own heart, running wasn't an option. He couldn't leave his safe place, his imaginary castle. Once Rachel was inside, he was helpless to protect himself against her, helpless to escape.
“Love came by accident. Rachel was supposed to be a toy, a temporary plaything,” said Jake, bowing his head slightly embarrassed to say this in front of a woman of God. “Sorry, Sister, but that was the reality.”
“How did you know you were in love? What does it feel like?” she quizzed him in the way a child naively questions something wondrous they've never experienced.
“Have you never been in love?”
The Sister didn't speak, but the way she lowered her eyes self consciously told him his answer.
“It's nothing concrete, rather something you feel like a great lake swallowing you into its bowels.”
The Sister blushed, unsure of the answer's meaning.
“Sister, I couldn't help but overhear that you're from Saint Joseph's Catholic Church.”
The Sister bowed her head affirmatively, and Jake pulled a letter out of the drawer next to his bed.
“Could you take this to Father Michael?”
“I'll give it to him this evening, and if you'd like, next time I come I could wheel my grandmother into your room and read to you as well. We've just started Willa Lather's One of Ours.
“I know,” said Jake as he took her hand and kissed it. The Sister blushed once again, and parted, knowing she would see him again.
Father Michael had just finished evening mass by the time Sister Teresa had returned from the nursing home. He was saying goodbye to the parishioners as she came into the foyer; she bowed her head letting her veil fall across her face. Guilt for her absence made her blush or maybe it was Father Michael. His presence had caused this reaction many times. The flushed, muddled feeling was foreign to her. She likened it to being ill.
“I'm sorry I missed mass. I guess I stayed too long with my grandmother.” Father Michael's eyes twinkled, amused that such a small transgression caused shame to wash over her.
Knowing he was mocking her, the soft blush turned to a deep, dark crimson that painted even her ears. She hurried past him into the chapel; she didn't understand why Father Michael had the ability to make her feel like a naughty child. The chapel was empty, except for a boy. Sister Teresa reached into her pocket and found the letter intended for Father Michael. She started to turn to give it to him when she took a second look at the boy, recognizing him from a few weeks ago. Disheveled and dusty, the boy self-consciously brushed off his clothes and tried to flatten his unruly long, blond locks with his hands as he watched the Sister approached him. His clothes were covered in days and days of dirt, his face drawn and his eyes looked uneasy like a lost dog that had been kicked by strangers.
The Sister slipped the letter back in her pocket and asked, “When was the last time you bathed or ate?”
“Three days, Sister,” he murmured, embarrassed by his appearance and the truth he spoke.
The Sister took the boy's hand and led him through the chapel down a long corridor, lined with doors on both sides. Asking him to wait in the hall, she went into a storage closet where she kept donated clothing. When she returned, in one hand were a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt, socks and underwear; and in the other she had shampoo, soap and a towel.
“These should fit,” she said.
Then she led him farther down the corridor and pointed to a door, “Go on in there, at the back are the showers.”
The boy wanted to thank her, but he was so tired and taken aback by her kindness he simply obeyed. When he came out cleaned and dressed, he found Sister Teresa in the kitchen setting a plate of chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans on a linoleum table that had thin chrome legs.
“Have a seat and eat,” she said as she turned off the flame on the gas stove.
Once again, he obeyed. The boy wanted to remember his manners, but his hunger grabbed and tore at the food. The milk she'd placed before him, he gulped down quickly, and she refilled the empty glass. When he began to slow down, she pulled up a chair next to him.
“Where have you been sleeping?”
“Anywhere I can find: a park bench, under a tree, in an alley.”
“I remember you came when your mother passed away. Do you not have any other family?”
“My grandparents are gone, and my mother had no siblings. My father I never knew. He died when I was an infant. I stayed in the house as long as I could, but mother was behind on payments and the bank repossessed it. I ran away when the cops came to pick me up. I was afraid they'd send me to a reformatory or to a foster family. Please, could I stay here? I could do the yard work and help clean.”
“How old are you?” she asked as she scooped more potatoes and chicken onto his plate.
“Fifteen, I'll be 16 next June.”
“We'll see what we can do. For tonight, there's an extra room next door to where you showered. I'll put some clean sheets and pajamas on the bed and talk to Father Michael about this in the morning.” As if forgetting herself, she said, “I'm Sister Teresa.”
The Sister left the boy to finish eating. After she fixed his bedroom, she went back to the chapel where a handful of people sat waiting for confession. A graying woman, with black lace draped over her head, emerged from the confessional as a teenage boy with ripped jeans and a black Metallica T-shirt walked in. Each nodded to the other in reverential silence.
Outside the low-slung, pueblo-style church, a man had been circling the block for an hour and now he paced up and down the stone steps uncertain whether to enter. Sister Teresa glanced outside the propped open door and saw the fretting young man.
“Are you here for confession?”
Unprepared to answer, he stumbled on his words before he finally asked, “Is Father Michael here?”
“He's taking confessions.”
Following her gesture to enter, he walked inside and took a seat beside a man holding a small-brimmed hat in his lap. Surmising from his dark skin, square face and high cheekbones, he assumed the Indian had come from one of the pueblos. By the time Matthew’s turn came, his heart beat so powerfully in his chest, he was certain others could see his shirt rising and falling to its rhythm. His ears were so filled with the beating sound, dizziness came over him. All was hazy, his vision blurred. As he rose, his legs twitched involuntarily. Matthew hardly noticed the pueblo Indian, who walked out with the help of a cane as Matthew went into the confessional. Shutting the door, he sat down on a wobbly wood stool inside a box no bigger than a telephone booth. Father Michael opened the sliding window that allowed the two to speak. Matthew went to speak but nothing came out.
The Father waited for the customary, “Forgive me Father for I have sinned,” but when it didn't come he asked, “How long has it been since your last confession?”
Still there was silence.
“It’s okay, my child, speak. God forgives all.”
Matthew didn't know what he'd say until the words fell from his mouth. “Forgive you, Father, for you have sinned.”
At first, Father Michael was puzzled by the man's twist on words, then he realized that this low-pitched voice belonged to the son he had only heard speak once since he was a boy of 13.
“I prefer to be called Matt. Surely, it's a sin to abandon your son. Do you know how long I waited for you?”
Matthew's voice began to crack and tears pooled in his eyes as he continued, “You didn't even look back. Didn't you think it was enough that I had lost my mother?”
The Father struggled for the words to convey his sorrow, his regrets but nothing could excuse this failing and the truth might hurt him more. How could he tell him what he only just realized himself, that he had so loved Emma and Matthew's eyes so resembled hers.
“And you wear that white collar. These people look up to you. You're a fraud.”
Father Michael's voice barely broke a whisper, “No man is without sin.”
Matthew was so upset he only heard vague mumbling as he shouted, “Do you have nothing to say to me?”
“How do I ask forgiveness from a son for such an unforgivable crime?”
“I guess you don't.”
Matthew ran out of the confessional; rage and hate pushed away his pain.
Father Michael ripped off his white collar and ran after him, “Wait. Please don't go.”
Matthew turned to him and shouted, “I remember saying those words. Now it's your turn to wait for my return.”
By the time Father Michael was ready for bed, Sister Teresa had already retired for the night. The red glow from the fire in his kiva had just taken the chill out of the air. His bare feet swished hurriedly across the cold, wood floor. Shivering, he climbed under layers of blanket and reached for his hot tea. Sleep wouldn't come easy tonight; his mind was too filled with remorse. All these years later, he could still clearly see his 13-year-old son's face, soft and plump with baby fat, as he walked away. Crying had turned Matthew's natural blush ruddy, and his pleading eyes red and swollen. In broken sobs, he begged his father not to leave. Father set down his tea and wished with all he held sacred that he had gone back for him. As he reached to turned turn off the light, he saw a letter addressed to him on his nightstand. Not recognizing the handwriting, he opened it.
Hate me if you wish, but I'm the only living person who knows what happened to your mother. You're searching for answers you won't find in newspaper clippings. I'm willing to supply them, but I need something in return. Come soon.
Your father in blood, Jake.
The sun was nothing more than a thin-yellow line on the horizon when Father Michael woke up startled. His pajamas were damp from sweat and his sheets twisted and tossed at the foot of the bed. A sense of urgency came over him as he looked around the room, as if uncertain of his whereabouts.
Jumping up, he braced his hands on the windowsill and stared blankly through the frosted glass, trying to grasp what had happened. It had to be a dream, he thought, but it seemed so real that his body tingled with the afterglow. His thoughts so consumed him, he didn't notice the light rain had darkened the earth's red and brown tones, nor did he see that the black-and-white magpies had gathered to wash their wings in the newly-formed puddles. His hands shook as he lit a cigarette. Sister Teresa's embrace--her arms, legs, lips and even her breath--were as real to him as his own limbs. So clearly, he could see the moonlight outline her curves as her nightgown slipped off her shoulders and fell to the floor.
Bewildered, he stared at his own hands, which he surely had cupped her soft breasts and stroked her velvety skin. The thrust of her hips, the squeeze of her thighs still lingered on his body. Even her smell, a faint sweetness of gardenias, surrounded him. Several moments past until he assured himself that it was only a dream. Even then, guilt washed over him: guilt at betraying the only woman he'd ever touched in such a private way and guilt at betraying his vows to the church. The fact that it was a dream did not absolve him of sin. The commandment, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife,” kept going through his mind. How much worse is it to covet a nun? Christ's wife? Wanting her was a sin in Michael's eyes and the church's doctrines. He knew he'd have to appeal to the diocese to remove her from his parish immediately. They couldn't leave her here to torment him, but the question remained: What should he do until then? For now, Father Michael knew he'd be expected at breakfast soon. How could he look at her? Surely something in his face or tone would give his impure thoughts away.
Down the hall, he heard Sister Teresa preparing breakfast. He didn't know she was preparing breakfast for three; he only knew his plate would go untouched. Long ago, he'd put away his desire for a woman, and he didn't want to want again. Both women he had loved had died: first his mother, then Emma. Anger swelled up in him. The priesthood, his white collar, had failed to shield him, to give him a superhuman ability to battle desire, as Samson's hair gave him the strength to slay his enemies. What good was any of this if it couldn't keep him safe? The lie he told himself was that the priesthood was a calling, not a shroud to hide in.
Father Michael told himself many lies, which he had so intricately woven into truth's fragile threads that he didn't know one from the other. Unintentionally, Sister Teresa unraveled his web.
In the kitchen, Sister Teresa filled Peter's plate with pancakes, which he smothered in butter and maple syrup. Dressed in the clothes Sister Teresa had given him, he had his hair neatly combed back in a ponytail, still wet from his morning shower. Beside him laid a sketch pad and a set of charcoal pencils.
“This afternoon, I'd like to hike up into the pines over by Red River to sketch,” said Peter.
“That sounds lovely. How will you get there?”
“I always hitchhike.”
“That's hardly safe. I'll drive you.”
Peter wanted to say “No,” so he could be alone with his drawings, but he could hardly be rude to the woman who'd been so kind. So he thanked her for the offer and sliced off some more butter for his half-eaten pancakes.
Hitchhiking wasn't going to happen today. That was one time he enjoyed talking. Those who stopped he'd never see again and he could be, for a short moment, anyone. Each time, he'd make up a new name and a new life. Sometimes, he was traveling with his father, who was a cowboy working odd jobs at ranches around the country. One time, he was a child-genius, studying geology at the university, and another time a concert pianist, taking a vacation from his heavy touring schedule.
“We'll leave right after I speak to Father Michael about you,” said Sister Teresa as she rinsed off the dishes. “Remember don't say a word about your situation until I have a chance to discuss this issue with him.” Peter agreed and finished his pancakes, making room for more, which Sister Teresa already had ready. Although she had never been a mother, she intuitively knew how to make the boy feel safe.
All morning, Father Michael did his best to avoid Sister Teresa. If he saw her briefly, he'd stutter and make some excuse as to why he had to hurry off, everything from bowel troubles to visitors in his office. She was confused by the way he'd scurry off like a school boy who had done something naughty. His head would bow in a shy, reluctant way that was uncharacteristic of him. In fact, he was acting more like her. In truth, she enjoyed the role reversal.
When Father Michael thought he could avoid her no longer, he disappeared out the backdoor and through the courtyard to seek help from a friend, another priest, in Ranchos de Taos, where he heard the same words he himself had spoken to other priests: “You're a priest, who has made a vow of celibacy, but you're still a mortal man. God brings us trials of the flesh to test our resolve. This isn't something to run from but to embrace and conquer.” The visit only caused his frustration and anguish to grow.
Afterward, he drove for hours down the back roads and circled the block around the nursing home, where Jake stayed, several times. He had even walked into the dimly lit entrance, but when the receptionist asked if she could help him, he turned and left. Jake had been right, he had been searching for the answers to his mother's murder. He had been five at the time, and his memories were sketchy: shadows, smells, voices, a loud crashing, a scream, a door slam. When everything got quiet, he cracked open his bedroom door. In his footed pajamas, he crept down the hall. Something wet and thick seeped through the feet of his pajamas. It was too dark to know it was his mother's blood. That's where his memory ended. When he'd try to go beyond the hall, it would roll and sway like a giant serpent blocking his path. His vision blurred and legs grew heavy as if he were wading through waist-high tar.
In his nightmares, he'd be small, always in those same pajamas, at a cocktail party. The adults would be laughing, talking. Their mouths moved, but he heard no words. He'd run from adult to adult screaming, but no sound came out. He'd slam his fists against their thighs, backs and stomachs, but he couldn't hit hard enough for them to feel him. They'd just keep talking, unaware of his existence. It was as if he were deaf and mute, and they were blind. Yes, he wanted to know the answers but not today. Just the thought of it made him want to crawl in the back of his closet and hide.
By noon, Sister had given up on talking to Father Michael, so she and Peter loaded up the church's station wagon and drove to Red River, New Mexico. She parked the car on the shoulder of a two-lane blacktop, which wound through the mountains. Sister reached in the back seat for the picnic basket, and Peter grabbed an old blanket, his pad and pencils and enough water for the two of them.
Ponderosa pines, with their crisp cool scent, surrounded them; a light haze hovered above the tree tops. At their feet was a floor of needles, soft yet firm like straws of hay. They climbed up a thin, winding dirt path, which had a musky smell. Peter took the basket from Sister Teresa, who had difficulty maneuvering her long skirt around the jagged rocks and protruding branches.
When they descended down the first ridge, a flock of turkey hurriedly waddled or flew into the brush. Not long after that, they reached the top of the third ridge. Below a herd of elk grazed in the lush, green valley. Twigs broke under Sister's feet. The elk bull popped his head up, searching the ridge for a predator. Peter and Sister froze, afraid to breathe and disturb this picturesque scene, but Sister Teresa, precariously balanced on a rock, slipped and the herd took off into the mountains.
Neither had said much on the way up. Both drank in the quiet around them, content to observe the flora and fauna spectacularly displayed. When they reached the highest ridge, Peter leaned against a rock and began to draw Sister Teresa, who had squat down to admire the delicate White Mountain flowers. Sister Teresa loved the mountains and the pines, how noble they looked lording over all that they saw. But as much as she loved this, she preferred the harshness of the low lands, with their sheer cliffs, rugged mesas and narrow canyons dotted with pines, junipers, the long-spindly cholla cactus, prickly pears and yuccas, which she thought resembled Indian war bonnets. Each year, when the prickly pear fruit was ripe, she always made jelly.
'“What are you drawing?,” Sister asked.
Flattered and embarrassed she responded, “Surely, we didn't have to travel all this distance for you to sketch me.”
“The light catches your face perfect here.”
As the day went on, Peter became glad that the Sister came. She left him to his thoughts most of the time, and when she did say something it was worth listening to. Besides, at this moment, in this light, she was his perfect subject.
As Sister Teresa watched the boy watching her, she grew to admire his inner strength so evident in his eyes as well as his physical beauty, a striking boy with deep, green eyes and blond curly hair that fell to his waist. Still, something in his demeanor, she sensed, made him unsettled, a kind of restless wanderer, who could be content traveling the rails without attachments. Perhaps it was because he just lost his mom or because he was a loner. While they were climbing, he told her how he preferred books to friends; consequently, he didn't really have any close relationships except his friend Katie. When he wasn't reading, he was sketching or scribbling in his journal, where he wrote about fantasies rather than his life.
After lunch, Peter and Sister Teresa lay down on the grass to nap. Above them, Sister Teresa watched two hawks.
“When I was a girl, I remember lying in the grass just like this with my father. We'd watch the stars or the birds or the clouds go by and talk for hours.”
Pointing to the hawks, Sister Teresa called out with excitement, “Look Peter, its mother is giving her young flight lessons. Watch the mother. See how she flies under the young hawk to lift him up.”
Peter watched in awe as the mother carefully lifted the hawk up and then swooped down to let her young try his wings. As soon as he began to falter, she'd dive under him and lift him up again. She repeated this over and over. Each time, the youth flew just a little more on his own. Peter turned his page on his sketch book to draw the wondrous sight.
“It reminds me,” said Peter affectionately, “of when my mother taught me to swim. She'd move farther and farther away from me until I could swim on my own but always close enough to catch me if I went under.”
Father Michael tried to focus, as he steered his jeep down the road's curves and switch backs. The day was still and the air dry. His headlights flashed past the rocks, trees, fence posts and an occasional empty cigarette pack or beer bottle. He drove through Taos' tourist Mecca with its high-dollar art galleries and trendy eateries. The streets were filled with people milling about the galleries and eateries. Father Michael's hands steered the car, but he wasn't certain where he was going until he got there. Turning up a canyon road, the jeep whined as he shifted down in the gears so it could more easily make the incline. It was prone to overheat at the least exertion. Once at the top, he turned down a road only wide enough for one car to pass and pulled into a small driveway in front of a two-story, pueblo-style nursing home. The clock on his dash read 3:04 p.m.
As usual, Father Michael slipped into the nursing home unquestioned. His white collar gave him a pass into hospitals and nursing homes at all hours. Jake was awake when Father Michael entered the room and tossed the crumbled letter in Jake's lap.
“I don't have anything to say to you.”
“Doesn't look that way; you could have thrown that letter away. You brought it here to talk to me. You're just too stubborn to admit it.”
“Don't call me. Don't write me. Leave me alone.”
“Suit yourself. You can walk out of here.”
Father Michael turned toward the window and combed his fingers through his hair and pulled the roots in frustration. Just walk out, he kept thinking, but his feet didn't move.
“I guess I get my stubborn streak from you,” said Father Michael, in a tone that both surrendered and apologized. “I want to make it clear, I'm not here to bond with you. I'm here for answers.”
Jake nodded yes, and Father Michael sat down and lit a cigarette. “You're really not supposed to smoke in here.”
“You asked me here,” growled Father Michael, as he took another drag.
“If I have to endure the second-hand smoke, at least give me a puff.”
Father Michael placed the butt to Jake's lips. Jake drew in a long breath and held the smoke in his lungs as if taking a hit off a joint. With a slight cough, Jake said, “You think you know who I am.”
“I know all I need to know about you.”
“Before I tell you about your mother, I have so much I need to tell you, to teach you. I want you to learn who I am, and then I want us to go to the ranch, to the homestead where the three of us lived. I understand that your Aunt Sarah and her husband are running it. I want you to see it.”
“I have seen it.”
Jake looked at him, quizzically. Father Michael answered his non-verbal question. “A decade or more ago I went in search of you. I found your parents instead. I wanted to know where my face and hands came from. My memory had so faded from when I was five, I could no longer make out your eyes or mother's mouth. Your features had blurred, indistinguishable. I wouldn't have known you if I'd seen you on the street. You had become as much of a stranger as if I'd never met you.
“When I met my blood grandparents, I thought I'd feel emotional when I saw them; perhaps a gene memory would well up in me, and I'd instantly feel an attachment to them, that somehow my soul would know them, but I felt nothing. They were just an elderly couple I shared a soda with. No deep connection. No inner knowing, they as blank and numb toward me as I to them. They told me you had died, but I never found an obit on you. A couple years later, I learned that you were still alive. I confronted them. They told me that it was best that I didn't know my father. To them you were dead.”
Jake's face remained expressionless, but the words stung, nonetheless. He remembered all too well the day his father said those exact words to him.
“When I insisted that I would find you with or without their help, your father brought out a cardboard box. They showed me photos of you as a boy, as a teen, as a man. If it wasn't for the older style of clothes, I could have passed the photos off as myself. I saw a photo of you and my mother right after you married, and one of the three of us. I was dressed in a cowboy hat and chaps sitting on a pony. You two stood hand-in-hand beside me.”
“That was at the Coconino fairgrounds,” recalled Jake. “We went every year. You were three years old.”
“Mary dug deeper and showed me drawings you made as a child, a pencil container you decorated for her one Mother's Day, your first pair of shoes. Mary said that the last time they heard from you you were in Chicago but, she said, that some things were best left buried. Then they gave me a tour around the ranch and showed me the house where we lived. I wouldn't, I couldn't go inside. As I was leaving, Mary gave me the photo of the three of us.
“Then Daniel took me aside and gave me a manila envelope filled with papers. He said, if I must know read them, but advised me to throw them away. I left and never went back.
“I must have driven a hundred miles from the ranch before I pulled over. Thirty minutes went by while I tried to decide whether to open it. Finally, I dumped it upside down. Several newspaper clippings out of Chicago dropped out. I read and read; each word slapped me: suspected hit man arrested, possibly connected to a dozen other drug and Mafia related hits. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.”
Jake studied his son's face: impassive, angry, self-absorbed.
“That's part of the story. Are you ready to hear the rest?”
Father Michael shifted in his seat considering the question. It wasn't that he didn't know his answer; he just needed to sit quietly to absorb the weight of it.
When Father Michael nodded yes, Jake said, “Good, we'll start in the morning.”
By the time Father Michael returned, Sister Teresa and Peter had been back for hours. Sister nervously glanced at her watch, checked and rechecked the front and side doors of the chapel. It was only 5 minutes until Father Michael was to conduct mass, and he always came early to greet parishioners. Most had already taken their seats in the pews and had knelt in prayer. The last stragglers hurriedly crossed themselves with holy water and took their seats. Peter handed out the last few flyers with the evening's mass outlined on it. Sister sighed with relief when she saw Father Michael coming down the chapel aisle.
After mass, Father Michael managed to avoid Sister Teresa throughout the evening. It was late when she finally caught him in his slippers and robe coming down the hall for a drink of water. She hadn't been able to sleep, worrying about the boy and wondering what Father Michael would say. After all, this wasn't as simple as asking to keep a puppy, but how could they turn him away when he had nowhere to go?
Father Michael didn't want to talk, but he could see that this time she wouldn't be put off. In her soft, spoken way she told him how the boy had been living on the streets and how he seemed so lost and in need of shelter. The Father listened as she spoke, knowing his answer before she finished.
“You're a nun, I'm a priest. We can't set up house and raise him as if we were his parents,” said the Father in a sarcastic, irritated tone.
“He is a soul in need, Father. Isn't that our calling?”
Peter heard their voices in the hall and cracked his door to listen.
“He can stay for the moment, but the Catholic Church is no longer in the
business of being an orphanage. In the morning, we must call the authorities. They can handle this situation better.”
“Father, he has already lost his mother, should he now be asked to leave the only town he's ever lived in?
“I'm not discussing this anymore.”
Changing the subject, he confronted Sister Teresa with the letter he found on his night stand.
“Where did this letter come from?”
“A man in the nursing home where my grandmother stays.”
“I don't want you to see him again.”
Father Michael didn't know how to tell her Jake was evil. She had an innocence he didn't want to destroy.
The Sister bowed her head in reluctant obedience, but inwardly she knew she would keep her promise to read to Jake, and she'd somehow get the Father to let the boy stay.
Peter wrapped his few things in a blanket and slipped out the window. Not knowing where else to go, he climbed over the fence to his old home, which had been repossessed by the bank. The front and back doors were nailed shut. After finding all the windows locked, he untied his blanket and made himself a pallet, using the blankets he took from the church and the clothes Sister gave him for a pillow.
He brushed his teeth using the backyard hose and sat on the front porch, hoping Katie might come looking for him, but the night and next day came and went without a single visitor. He didn’t know that her mother had moved the two out in the middle of the night because once again she had failed to pay their rent. Katie begged to stop and tell Peter, but the mother said they didn’t have time. By this time Katie was already in Albuquerque.
Still day after day, Peter watched for her. Neighbors didn't bother to ask why he sat on the porch. Across the street, he could see the Snide family sitting down for dinner. He considered knocking at the door in hopes of an invitation to eat, but his pride prevented that. He considered rummaging through the trash but quickly decided he wasn't that desperate yet. So he just climbed back over the fence, covered himself with the blanket and tried to will his stomach pangs away.
Father Michael only managed an hour nap before his anxious heart prodded him awake. When he went to put his feet on the floor, he almost stepped on Kokopelli, who had curled up beside the bed. At the moment, he couldn’t remember why he allowed Sister Teresa keep the dog. Against Father Michael’s desires the wolf dog took to him rather than Sister Teresa. The dog, of course, loved her, but come nighttime she wanted to be with the Father. So Father Michael carefully stepped over Kokopelli as he scratched her head.
Since Sister Teresa’s arrival, the church had acquired numerous injured rabbits, birds, a dog, two cats, and now she brought in a child. His patience had worn down like brakes grinding on metal.
All was dark outside, as he showered and dressed. As Father Michael headed out, he saw Sister Teresa kneeling at the altar, her face upturned before the icon of the Virgin Mary cradling Christ. The church was dark except for the votive candles parishioners had lit below Mary's bare feet. The Sister wasn't usually up this time of morning, but she hadn't been able to sleep.
Through the entrance behind the lectern, where sermons and masses had been conducted for centuries, Father Michael had walked in expecting to find the chapel empty. He often wandered through the church early in the morning to sort through his thoughts and to listen to the silence. Somehow, he hoped the souls of the priests and monks who came before him would impart their wisdom.
This morning his mind was heavy with thoughts of Sister Teresa, the man he refused to call father and his own son Matthew. Even the sleeping tablet he took didn't helped. Finally, he gave up and flung back the sheets and dressed. Once Father spotted Sister Teresa he turned to slip out unnoticed, but she had heard his steps double click on the wood floors.
Not taking her eyes off the Virgin Mary, she softly called out, “Father, you couldn't sleep either?”
Before his mind thought his body moved toward the Virgin Mary, lit a candle and knelt beside the Sister. “Would you pray with me?”
His pleading eyes were foreign to her. She felt a twitch of fear, as a child about to learn her father wasn't bullet proof. Confused, she slowly uttered, “Of course, Father.”
Tears came to the Father Michael's eyes as he began to pray, “Holy Mother of God, hear our prayer. I'm called upon to lead this parish but how can I when I'm lost. Help me to find the words I need to help Sister Teresa understand.”
His words so confused her, she turned her eyes away from the Virgin Mary and stared into his mournful face. She wanted him to look at her directly, but Father Michael kept his eyes closed and enfolded Sister Teresa's hands, cupped in prayer and continued.
“I have sinned, and I will continue to sin as long as Sister Teresa is in this parish. I have fallen in love with her. I covet her. Ask her to search her heart and have pity on me. Ask her to request a reassignment.”
Bewildered, Sister Teresa pulled away. Father Michael dropped his head in disgrace and said barely audibly, “I'm sorry, Sister Teresa.”
Not knowing what to say, feel or do, the Sister gathered up her habit and hurried across the chapel, down the hall to her room.
Father Michael had one more task that couldn't wait for daylight. He set out down the slick, two-lane blacktop toward Taos, New Mexico. Few cars were on the road this early in the morning, as he steered one-handed and sipped black coffee. Kokopelli sat on the seat beside him watching out the window and occasionally sniffing at a brown-paper bag with grease seeping through its sides.